Five acres of black clay.
Multiple piles of woodchips. Dozens of fruit and pecan
trees. An array of vegetables and herbs. A CSA
(community-supported agriculture) providing healthy
produce to Central Texas families. All of this and more
from one focused, fit and frugal farmer at his certified
organic farm. And the one thing that you won’t find at
Millberg Farm is an irrigation system. For more than a
quarter century, Tim Miller has been dedicated to
dryland farming — his plants survive solely on rain that
is collected in a 3,500-gallon tank, moisture that is
captured and stored in the spongy woodchips that line
garden beds and pathways, as well as a three-second
drink of water doled out from one-gallon beverage jugs;
and even then, crops receive water only at critical
periods needed for growth.
often-challenging weather conditions in Texas, Tim has
used insightful knowledge of the microclimate and
geography of his land, strategic planning and a variety
of creative water-conservation practices to harness
every drop of rain that falls on his property. The
driving force behind his system stems from an altruistic
desire to make growing food doable for families and
individuals with limited resources. He farms in an
ultra-thrifty and sustainable way — using salvaged,
reused and what he calls re-recycled items. He
incorporates free and low-cost resources, including
reclaimed wood, cardboard, woodchips and even weeds.
Free and bountiful, weeds are intentionally allowed to
grow on parts of his farm. Johnson grass may be cut down
and used as mulch for vegetables; switchgrass may be
trimmed and used as a nitrogen source for a compost pile
or layered at the bottom of a propagation bed to
generate heat for new seedlings. Tall, native sunflowers
are allowed to reseed along the edge of a field, where
they serve as a windbreak and their spiny stalks act as
an irritant to deter deer.
A transplant from
Wisconsin, Tim came to Texas in 1984 with a farming
background, a geography degree and a midwestern accent.
For a decade he worked in Austin, where he developed
several community gardens, senior gardens and school
gardens. He ultimately headed south to develop his own
farm on five acres of land in the neighboring community
of Kyle. Many of his well-honed gardening skills were
acquired while working with the life-long gardeners he
served in Austin, and in turn he is passing those skills
along to his daughter and son, who have grown up with
the farm as their backyard.
For 30 years, Tim has
worked with nature to create a thriving, productive
organic farm with minimal inputs and maximum yields,
Miller-style. The work of farming keeps him active and
physically fit, while daily, weekly and long-term goals
for planting, harvesting and soil building keep him
focused and on track throughout the gardening year. Two
books in particular have influenced his gardening habits
— Ed Hume’s annual Garden Almanac (https://www.humeseeds.com/mb96.htm)
and Raising with the Moon by Jack Pyle and
Taylor Reese. At the heart of his production system is a
desire to make the most of his land, utilizing reclaimed
and recycled resources as much as possible, sharing his
knowledge with gardeners and farmers, and sharing his
healthy harvest through a low-cost CSA targeted at
families with young children.
Some of the
techniques developed at Millberg Farm may seem contrary
to the conventional guidelines and recommendations that
most of us are accustomed to, but Tim marches to a
different beat. Aware of the ever-present threat of
droughts, floods, record heat and inconsistent rainfall,
I’ve asked Tim to share some of the techniques that are
most vital to his success as a dryland vegetable farmer.
Perhaps we all need to be looking at our own gardens
with an eye toward novel and unusual methods of
conservation and sustainability that may prove
beneficial in the long run.
For years Tim has accepted truckloads of woodchips from
local tree-trimming companies. He allows the piles to
sit for months and sometimes years. They are added to
trenches and pathways, and they are used as a layer in
his propagation beds. Tim also sifts the decomposing
woodchips and uses the finer material as a compost
addition to potting soil.
Tim knows he is never going to completely get rid of
weeds; so instead of expending energy battling them, he
incorporates them into his production system. While many
gardeners fret over sticky weed or thistle, Tim allows
them to grow and then cuts them down with a hedge
trimmer to use as mulch to protect the soil or as an
addition to the compost pile. He purposefully
weed-whacks the tops of hedge parsley (Torilis
arvensis, sometimes referred to as beggar’s lice)
so that it grows back bushier, providing even more mass
when he pulls it up and stuffs it into the top of a
tomato cage for hail protection. Weeds are also used to
generate heat for early-spring transplants. Six inches
of freshly cut weeds are spread on the bottom of his
grow-beds (long, rectangular frames made from discarded
greenhouse tables enclosed with recycled corrugated
panels), then topped with a layer of woodchips. Flats of
tender transplants fit on top of the woodchips inside
the frames. When covered, the heat released from the
weeds protects tomatoes, eggplants and peppers through
3. Cardboard: Use
cardboard to protect soil, suppress unwanted weeds, or
use as a windbreak — it’s free, it’s durable, it breaks
down gradually and there seems to be an unending supply.
In the home garden it can be discreetly hidden with a
layer of woodchips or mulch.
Cactus: Not only is it edible and drought
tolerant, spineless cactus pads are an excellent
nitrogen source for compost piles. Tim also propagates
spineless cactus for nursery sales.
Saving Seed: Growing seed through a complete
cycle is a rewarding and sustainable endeavor. Over
time, seed saved from one’s own plants adapts to the
regional growing conditions, providing a diverse — and
free — source of edibles. For Tim, the sale of his saved
seeds is also a source of income.
FIVE TIPS FOR WATER CONSERVATION
Hold on to rainwater: Help direct the flow of
water through your property with trenches and dams. Dams
will slow the flow, and shallow trenches filled with
woodchips collect and hold the water, allowing for more
gradual penetration into the soil. Install tanks,
cisterns or rain barrels (recycled 55-gallon, food-grade
drums are often available from Craigslist or recycling
centers) and use water conservatively.
Mulch with native grasses: Switchgrass,
sideoats grama and other grasses are intentionally
allowed to grow and reseed in specific areas of the
farm. They are cut green and used as hay mulch around
plants, and sometimes they are allowed to grow tall and
thick to serve as a windbreak or to deter deer from
accessing valuable crops.
3. Irrigate at
critical times for growth: Most vegetables can
get by on less water as long as they receive an adequate
amount during critical periods of growth. As a general
rule of thumb, irrigate immediately after transplanting,
at flowering and at fruit set. Tim makes sure to give
his beans an extra drink of water when they are
flowering to ensure well-developed pods.
4. Cultivate the soil to prevent crust or cracking:
A crust on the surface of the soil can lead to water
run-off. Tim uses a four-tine cultivator or a stirrup
hoe to loosen the soil and dislodge small weeds. This
task is most effective on a hot, sunny day when upturned
weeds fizzle away in the heat.
water for tomatoes: Give tomatoes extra water
when fruits reach the size of a half-dollar. For
large-fruited varieties, such as beefsteaks and slicers,
Tim also recommends a fertilizer boost (he uses liquid
fish emulsion) when the fruits start to enlarge.
TIM’S FIVE FAVORITE HEIRLOOM VEGETABLES
A dedicated seed-saver, Tim prefers heirloom vegetables
for their hardiness and adaptability as well as their
invaluable and irreplaceable genetic heritage.
1. “Dr. Pound” garlic: A big fan of
alliums, Tim has been cultivating and selling unique
varieties of garlic, leeks and multiplying onions to
Austin-area restaurants for years. One of his pet
projects and long-term goals is to increase reserves of
the multiplying garlic he discovered on his property. A
wild garlic grown for the garlicky leaves rather than
the bulbs, it came (Tim’s research indicates) to Texas
from Mississippi in the 1850s with the family of
physician Joseph Pound. Tim christened the garlic “Dr.
Pound” in honor of the Central Texas pioneer and Civil
War surgeon whose restored farmstead stands as a Texas
State Historical Landmark in Dripping Springs. Every
year, Tim divides the garlic clumps, using some for
restaurant sales and some for replanting. This year he
planted 1,000 single stalks, expecting each one to
multiply into four or more new stalks. Eventually he
hopes to make “Dr. Pound” garlic available to gardeners
and farmers, where it could serve as a valuable source
of green garlic. A portion of his current stand of
garlic will be available through the Southern Exposure
Seed Exchange catalog in 2020.
‘Tatume’ squash: Round and green with firm,
flavorful flesh, ‘Tatume’ is a hardy summer squash that
is native to Mexico. Prized for its large yellow
blossoms, it grows on long, sturdy vines that are fairly
resistant to squash-vine borer. Tim has also observed
that ‘Tatume’ retards nutgrass.
‘Silvery Fir Tree’ tomato: A compact
determinate variety with unusual ferny foliage, this
plant produces tasty 2–3” red tomatoes. Tim likes this
one for its earliness — it’s a good variety for school
gardens because it will generally produce before
students leave school for summer.
‘Star of David’ okra: These prolific plants
produce short plump pods with an intense okra flavor and
lots of colorful blooms. Prune them down in the summer
to keep them from getting too tall and they will regrow
and produce until frost.
Indian Red’ lima bean: This vigorous maroon
pole bean produces off and on all summer. Tim’s
“flipping” method for replanting saved seed from this
plant is unique: He plants the seed on a wire fence
secured with five-foot metal t-posts and harvests the
pods throughout the late summer and into fall. At the
end of the season, he will leave a few dried pods at the
top of the plants, undo the t-posts and lower the fence
down onto the edge of the adjacent bed. Then he walks
over the pods, embedding the seeds into the soil, and
“flips” the fence upright so it is ready to support a
new row of freshly planted lima beans, efficiently
rotated into a new bed.