Meet the Grower: Misti Little

Misti Little messaged me after reading my interview with Lisa Coffee and discovering that I am a Texan gardener, just like her. She later interviewed me for her podcast, The Garden Path Podcast. It’s episode 2-6 if you want to listen! I thought it would be fun to switch roles afterwards and interview her! Not only is she a gardener, she is also a biologist and has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail!

1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

By day, I work in environmental consulting and have a B.S. in marine biology. Somewhere in the last 15 years I went from being a dolphin hugger to a dedicated plant enthusiast. In college, I focused my degree more on the wetlands aspect of marine biology and that affected the trajectory of not only my career but also my interest in gardening and plants. I’m from Texas by birth and lived here until I was almost 22 (2002) but spent the rest of my 20s in various parts of Florida where my husband and I became very passionate about the outdoors. We explored, both on and off trails, the unique ecosystems of Florida and became interested in learning about native plants, particularly the orchids and bromeliad species that are endemic to the region.

Because we lived in such an interesting climate we also became gardening enthusiasts, first growing on balconies of apartments and then expanding our container garden to small homes that we rented, where we toted our plants from place to place. South Florida is a strange gardening and plant zone because of the amount of tropical plants that can be grown as well as flipped gardening seasons. We learned to love being able to grow tomatoes in December through April!

When we moved back to Texas seven years ago, it took us some time to get reacquainted with gardening and to learn how to garden in Texas’ dramatic climate. We currently garden in zone 9a (in Florida it was 10a/10b) but that’s a little tricky because that zone was only changed from 8b in the last decade. Because we live near Houston and the coast, we are sometimes tempted to pretend we are more sub-tropical than we really are and our location in a semi-rural area north of town, without the warmth of the radiant heat from the city, can really affect us in the winter. That 8b likes to show its face from time to time, like it did a few weeks ago! Our property is about 1.2 acres with pond frontage.

2. You have ‘biologist’ listed on your Instagram profile. How does your knowledge as a biologist impact your gardening?

As I mentioned, I focused on wetlands ecology as part of my degree so that meant I had to learn a lot about plants that define wetlands as part of my curriculum. Through this I became interested in not just wetland plants but native plants as a way of understanding the ecosystem around me. I had learned a lot of the coastal Texas plants in college but uprooting myself to Florida made me realize I needed to know what was growing there so I could be prepared for searching for a job. Slowly, as we began hiking and exploring Florida, it wasn’t long before we wanted to know what we were seeing on our hikes. Native plants and learning the taxonomic names of species was, and is, at the forefront of my mind when I’m getting to know an area and that has translated over to gardening, too. Many of the plants in our garden centers are cultivars or hybrids, and it can be difficult to find native plants or particular species unless you are shopping online or can find a native plant nursery nearby.

3. You recently showed pictures of the transition of your side yard over the past five years on your blog. What soil composition did you use to turn this area into a growing space?

We completely started from scratch on all of our flower and vegetable beds and opted to do raised beds for everything; that’s what is recommended for our area due to a variety of factors, including soil type and drainage. For the flower beds we purchased limestone blocks to create the perimeter of the beds and then purchased a raised bed soil mix from a local company that specializes in garden soils and compost mixtures.

My husband did the main plumbing work to install a water system but I assisted him in digging the trenches. It was time consuming due to our desire to work around a lot of the tree roots in the area the beds are located but also because we were trying to identify and avoid several different utility lines. We had the utilities delineated by calling 811 but we happened across at least one line that wasn’t known or marked!

For the flower beds we haven’t done much more in regards to adding soil over the last few years other than what decomposes naturally from leaves that fall into the bed and adding mulch once or twice a year. We do spray fish emulsion fertilizer on occasion in those beds but aren’t regular about it.

The post with the side yard evolution over the last five years is here.

4. Based on your pictures, it looks like you plant a lot of the same plants in the same bed. Is this for crop rotation purposes? Can you walk us through how you plan your gardening space?

There are six main vegetable beds which are 4’x16’, and we have perimeter beds of varying sizes along the deer fence. The perimeter fence beds were meant to be for more perennial edibles and herbs, but I’ve planted annual vegetables in those spaces as well to make use of the empty space.

For the six main beds in the vegetable garden, we used a special vegetable soil from the same company we purchased the flower bed soil, but the perimeter beds were built in a modified hügelkultur style. We excavated a couple of feet down and laid different types of wood debris into the beds, topping them with bags of leaves and compost—either what we had from our pile if any was available or compost we purchased – and filled those beds out from there. After the first year we had to add more compost in where the beds had settled. Once or twice a year we amend the six main beds with compost from our pile and top them off with mulch. Last year, we had a couple of bags of cypress needles we had collected and those worked awesome as a top dressing for potatoes we had planted. I’d like to use those again if we ever came across enough to mulch some of the beds!

As for planning, there’s usually not any particular rhyme or reason for planting similar plants in a bed other than they are empty and that’s what is going in next! I do try to keep in my head where I planted tomatoes each year so I can try to rotate out and avoid nematode issues but that doesn’t always happen. And the bed we initially planted sweet potatoes in never fails to re-sprout sweet potatoes every year, so sometimes I just reuse that bed for sweet potatoes anyway.

You can see more pictures of the creation of Misti’s garden here.

5. The birdhouse gourds you grew look so fun! What do you do with them after harvesting? Did you grow them for crafts?

They were fun to grow! I love seeing their flowers and am always excited when they finally get pollinated. I ended up with three gourds this year and attempted to dry them on my back porch but unfortunately, they began rotting so they went to the compost bin. I left them on the vines as long as possible but two of them fell off after the first freeze back in December. I think I will have to let them dry inside next year or figure out another method to prevent rotting.

As for use, my husband usually cuts a hole in them to hang for bird houses, but it would be fun to have enough to decoratively paint or use as yard art!

6. The gooseneck gourd that grew out of your compost sure is pretty. Was that a surprise? What composting methods do you use?

You definitely never know what you are going to get growing out of your compost pile, that’s for sure! The gooseneck gourd, before we knew that’s what it was, began creeping out of the right side of our compost bins and found itself climbing a pine tree just on the other side of our fence line. As this side of the pile was in the ‘adding’ phase, we just kept tossing debris in and opted not to turn it much while the gourd was growing. Later, I remembered it was from a gourd I’d gotten to put by our front door during the Halloween/Thanksgiving season the previous year!

We built our compost bins out of wood from around our yard that we cleaned up when we had moved in. The drought of 2011 left a lot of trees dead, so when we moved into the house there was a lot to clean up and have taken down. You can see the process and some of those compost building blog posts here.

It’s in far more need of replacement now!

It is a mostly hands off compost pile with periods where we attempt to be better at keeping it moist for decomposition to occur and turning it frequently and other periods where we just add to the pile and forget about it!

7. What, if any, preventative methods do you use for squash bugs with all the gourds you grow? They are a big issues for growers in my area!

The throw-your-hands-in-the-air-in-frustration method? In all seriousness, squash bugs are a problem for us too. My husband maintains that if you can get the plant going strong to begin with a good stem, that all will be well, but I disagree. I’ve seen perfectly healthy, strong (appearing!) plants wilted in 24 hours. Maybe this is where we need to add in the tulle crop cover that you use!

Another suggestion I’ve heard from several other Texas gardeners is to do squash in the fall instead of spring when bugs are lower.

8. What tips do you have for others gardening in deer country?

Protect what you really love and know that you will have grazing on the rest. When we moved in we removed a lot of the metal barriers that were around the trees and later realized they were there for a good reason: deer, but also beavers! Yes, we have beavers because we live on a pond, too. Our vegetable garden is in a fence otherwise we wouldn’t have any edibles, and if I try to grow beans, and even squash, along the fence they will eat them. I had a wonderful squash growing along the fence last summer, and when I came home from work for lunch I saw it ripped in two by the deer. I was quite grumpy after that!

The flower garden has been a trial and error process. Hibiscus are out of the question as they seem to be a delicacy for deer, and I try to hide similar relatives like cotton or the native Texas star hibiscus around other plants to lessen the damage. My gladiolus bulbs are starting to emerge for the spring and they were recently grazed on but they will pull through. My husband will spray an egg and pepper emulsion on the flower beds and that does seem to work for a while. However, any of the ‘predator’ smells and deterrents you can buy have never seemed to have much effect and I’d say not to waste your time on those.

9. You have lots of flower pics on your Instagram account. Tell us about your flower gardening. How much care do you provide to them compared to the edibles you grow?

Flower gardening is less intensive than edible gardening, in my perspective. We try to stick with more perennial plants that will make it through the winter or come back from the roots. Any gaps are filled in with annuals from seed or buying small pots each spring from our local nurseries. If we come across native plants those are always on our impulse buy list though we aren’t strict with planting only natives. Maintenance wise, I try to keep on top of weeds as I can throughout the year and do trimming as needed for plants that get heavy handed with themselves.

My husband is reviving his passion for orchids and bromeliads (we grew many in Florida), and I think the one time involved task is dealing with them in winter to protect them from cold temperatures. Maybe someday we will set up a greenhouse to help with that burden.

Last year, I made an attempt to grow a couple of different milkweeds for the monarchs and we were quite successful so I’m going to try to grow even more this year. We have a native passiflora that pops up in our yard, and I also grow several ornamental varieties that are also a host to the gulf fritillary caterpillar—I do try to grow flowers for wildlife (not the deer!) as well.

In 2013, we installed a top bar beehive which was successful until last spring when all the rain caused a combination of issues that resulted in our hive collapsing. We were also growing nectar sources for the bees, such as African blue basil, in the flower beds. We will be getting a new package of bees this spring so gardening for the bees, honeybees and native bees, is also on our mind going forward.

10. I love that you and your husband completed the Appalachian Trail. What an awesome accomplishment! How long did it take you guys? What was your motivation for doing so?

Some friends of ours took off on a cross-country road trip in 2008 and early 2009, and while they were wandering the continent, I wished we could be doing something similar. I came across a Backpacker magazine article in early 2009 about the Appalachian Trail. After researching the time commitment and cost, I thought we could attempt to save money for a year and go for it while we had little obligations. We left Springer Mountain, Georgia on March 13th, 2010 and finished on Katahdin in Maine on August 11, 2010. That’s 2,179 miles through 14 states on foot!

11. If someone was only completing one section of the AT, which section would you recommend? Any stand-outs?

Maine. Maine is hands-down the jewel of the trail, in my opinion. It’s also one of the more difficult sections (along with New Hampshire) but there’s something about those north woods that holds my heart. The entire trail is beautiful in its own right and someday I’d love to hike it in alternate seasons to see how different it is.

Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful garden, advice and inspiring yard transformations with us, Misti!

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