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Welcome to my zone 9a habitat garden near Houston, Texas.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Ch...ch...ch...changes!

As I mentioned in my last post here, this is the time of year in Southeast Texas when you can almost see the seasons changing as you stand and watch. That was brought home to me again today.


Yesterday, the old apple tree was full of buds. Today, those blooms are opening. It's a bittersweet event this year. The tree is old and diseased and it may have to go next winter, but I'll think about that later. For now, I'll just enjoy the beauty that the tree brings to my yard each late winter and has done for many years.


I had not even noticed the loropetalum forming buds, but, today, as if by magic, it is covered in its purple fringy blossoms.


This pretty coral pink salvia has also popped into bloom, seemingly overnight.


The Carolina jessamine is blooming, bringing its sweet fragrance to the corner of the garden where it lives.


With the blustery winds we had yesterday, many of those trumpet-shaped yellow jessamine blossoms were dislodged and floated to the grass like yellow snow.

But I say it's better to have fragrant yellow snow than the cold, icy variety. I can see you peeking around the corner, Spring! Welcome!

Friday, February 25, 2011

My weeds...and other things

My lawn will never make the cover of the The Grass-lover's Gazette. There are parts of my yard that do have grass growing, but the grass, a mixture of Bermuda and St. Augustine and who knows what else, has to share space with a lot of weeds. At this time of year, those weeds are in bloom and they are actually kind of attractive.


This dainty little white flower is found pretty much throughout the yard.


These delicate little yellow blossoms, on the other hand, seem to be confined to just one area of my vegetable garden.


Henbit is the real wildflower bully of the yard. It covers large swathes of the "lawn" just now.


Mock strawberry is actully an attractive and hardy ground cover and it has just about taken over one section of my backyard.

I guess I would be more concerned about all these weeds if I didn't have an ultimate goal of removing most of the grass and replacing it with planting beds anyway. For now, I'm happy enough to coexist with my unique mixture of grass and weeds.

In addition to the blooming weeds, there are other signs of the coming season in my yard.


The largest of my angel's trumpet plants which died back to the ground during winter - as, indeed, they all did - is now putting out sturdy green shoots from its roots. This is early for its resurrection. These plants usually start coming back in March.


The loquat laughed at all the freezes we had and it is still covered in buds.


The creeping veronica whose first tiny bloom I showed you a few days ago is now in full bloom.


And my first daffodil bloomed this week. I wish I could tell you its proper name - but I can't. It is no less pretty for being anonymous, I think.


The arugula and its delicate flowers also survived all the freezes and continues to bloom.


The blueberries are almost there. Give them a few more days and these blossoms will be completely opened and the bees will be having a party here.

Along with all the new buds, shoots, and blossoms this week, the critters are increasingly on display. I've already shown you one of my green anoles. I've seen a few butterflies around the yard, too. There was a beautiful Red Admiral in pristine condition, as well as several different kinds of Sulphurs, especially the little ones. There were tiny tree frogs in some of the pots that I moved this week. And then there were these guys:


My very first gecko sighting of the year! This Mediterranean gecko had stationed himself right next to the light fixture on the ceiling of my entry porch, better to catch the crane flies that were buzzing about it.

It's that remarkable time of year when it seems that we can almost see the seasons changing as we watch. I love it!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Say hello to my little friend

I was sitting in the backyard counting birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count this afternoon when I happened to glance at the chair next to me and saw an old friend.


He was trying to be inconspicuous by matching the color of the chair. But as I watched, he seemed to decide that perhaps he was too exposed and he jumped onto a nearby succulent.



Almost immediately, he began to change colors and soon he was as green as the plant. He appeared to be hunting for something to eat. Who knows when he had his last meal? Finding nothing tasty on this plant, he moved on to another one.



I guess there are limits to his ability to match his background color.

When we start seeing these little guys again, we know that spring truly is on its way, and this week I've been seeing them everywhere I turn. How nice it is to have my little garden friends back.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Got birds?



This is a long-awaited weekend for birders across Canada and the United States, including the island state of Hawaii. It is the time of the Great Backyard Bird Count when we spread out across the landscape of our two countries, identifying and counting birds to help discover how bird populations are faring here at mid-winter and where exactly particular birds are located.

This is a count that is not unlike the Christmas Bird Count except that the counter gets to pick where he or she will conduct the census. For most people, that is probably their own yard, but many also choose to survey public areas like parks or schoolgrounds.

The count takes place over the four-day President's Day weekend each year. Since many gardeners are also bird-lovers, a lot of them put down their trowels and hoes for the weekend and pick up their binoculars instead. Of course, some of us manage to combine the two activities. I spent most of my day today working in my backyard garden, but I was also watching birds, as I always do whenever I'm outside, no matter what else I may be doing.

Participants in this bird count do not have to have any particular birding expertise. People with all levels of experience are welcome. If you can spend as little as 15 minutes this weekend watching birds, then you, too, can participate. Just click on the GBBC website and submit your observations. You'll be asked to identify where you watched birds and then you'll be given the list of birds that could most likely be seen in that area. You simply enter the numbers of birds that you saw by each species that you observed. What could be easier?

It is fun and it is free, so come on and join us this weekend. I can practically guarantee you'll enjoy it.

(You can follow my weekend bird counts at Backyard Birder.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - February 2011

"We can have flowers every month of the year." - Elizabeth Lawrence


That quote from southern gardener and garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence inspired Carol of May Dreams Gardens to inaugurate what has become the garden bloggers' monthly rite of Bloom Day four years ago this month. Yes, Bloom Day started in deepest, darkest winter, the gardener's cry of defiance against the gloom of those days: "Yes, we CAN have flowers every month of the year!"

Of course, that's not to say that flowers aren't a bit sparse on the ground in some months. February being one of them. I must admit that I scratched my head in puzzlement as I looked around my yard today, wondering what I could possibly show you this month.


Most of my garden looks like this just now. Fried.


Or this. Hamelia patens asleep in the forground while Anisacanthus wrightii dozes in back.

But there are signs of waking.


The old apple tree is stretching and opening its eyes.


The fig trees are putting out some tentative buds.


And the blueberry buds are swelling larger daily.


The goldfinches are beginning to put on their summer dress.


And the titmice are beginning to look around for a place to raise their young.

It's not as if there is no color but brown in the garden.


"Joseph's Coat" lives up to its name.


The succulents provide some rosy color, too, and if you squint and hold your head at just the right angle, it might almost look like a flower.

Meanwhile, there is one true blossom that has bloomed faithfully all winter.


The leatherleaf mahonia has been in bloom since December.


Its pretty bell-shaped blossoms open sequentially along the stems over a period of several weeks.


The bees are very grateful. There were several of them sipping from the mahonia blooms today. (Well, it's not like there is a lot to choose from in my garden right now.)

And so, I thought, that's it. That's all my "blooms" for this Bloom Day, and I turned to go inside and upload my pictures.

But as I turned, a tiny flash of blue caught my eye. I looked more closely and sure enough, there it was - a bloom!


The little trailing veronica, 'Georgia Blue Speedwell,' had opened one tiny, fragile blossom. As I looked at it, it seemed to reproach me. "Oh, ye of little faith, of course, you can have flowers every month of the year! You just have to open your eyes - and your heart - to see them."

Happy Bloom Day to all. Thank you for visiting.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Signs of the season

When I headed outside early this morning, one of the first sounds that I heard was a flock of geese overhead - flying north.

Later, while pruning the grapevines in my backyard, I saw a flash of yellow on my left and looked around to see a Sulphur butterfly, the first one I had seen in my garden for awhile. Indeed, my garden had been butterfly-free for weeks.

It's not just butterflies. Other flying insects are showing up as well. I saw several bees around the yard as I worked today.

In the world of backyard birds, the goldfinches are getting more golden every day and the cardinals are singing their cheery spring song. Chickadees and titmice and wrens are investigating likely nesting places.

A few perennials are already beginning to send up some tentative green shoots and the buds on the fruit trees and shrubs are swelling.

The gentle stirrings of the season even reached my little pond today. I had not seen any of my goldfish for weeks, other than the time that I accidentally netted one of them when I was removing debris, but there they were today, chasing each other around the pond and clearly enjoying the beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures.

We have a few more weeks of winter, but the worst is behind us now. We may still have the odd night here and there of temperatures in the 30s, but it will be an aberration. Winter is dying right before our eyes and spring is a' borning.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Itchin' to prune!

I've had this itch to prune something for a couple of weeks now. At times, it has been hard to restrain my fingers from scratching the itch, but whenever I was tempted, I would just count to ten and remind myself that there was still cold weather ahead and maybe it wasn't the best of times to be encouraging my plants to put on new growth by pruning them. But this week of winter weather is almost behind us now and in just a few days we'll hit the mid-point of February, the traditional time to prune roses here. Time to dig out the rose gauntlets and sharpen up the Felcos!

Strictly speaking, none of my roses are of a type that demands pruning. In fact, many of the antiques actively resent it. Their attitude seems to be, "I know my job! Just leave me alone and let me do it!" Still, I ignore their resentment and prune them anyway.

I prune my roses for three reasons:
1. To shape them.
2. To remove dead wood and tangled limbs.
3. To encourage more blooms.

Some of them, like the 'Knockouts', get very light pruning, and some, like 'Caldwell Pink' which tends to grow into a huge tangle during the growing season, get pruned more radically. But they all get at least a token haircut.

I'm itching to prune other things as well. I look across my yard and see all that brown stuff left by the frosts and I really want to start cutting it back and removing it to neaten up the appearance of the yard, but I know it's best to just leave it for as long as possible because the dead brown stuff helps protect the live green stuff underneath, so I'll try to restrain myself a little longer.

The grape vines and the old apple tree are ready, though. In fact, I really should have pruned them last month, but I just never got around to it. No more delay! This weekend is the time to scratch that particular itch. What a relief that will be!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Frost free?

Absorbing the latest news from the Weather Channel website that we can expect some more very cold weather this week, I decided to check on the frost-free dates for my area.

I've done this before, of course. I probably do it every year around this time, but I can never remember for sure what the dates are, so I checked again.

Average frost-free dates for our area vary according to exactly where you are. Some come as early as the middle of this month. Mine is a bit later than that.

If you go to the Dave's Garden website and enter your zip code, you can get information about your own frost-free dates. That's what I did, and I found that the risk of frost here remains until February 27. That's an average, of course, and there's no guarantee that a freeze won't happen after that date, but the odds after February 27 are definitely in my favor.

For my zip code the risk of frost lasts from November 24 through February 27. We can pretty much count on having frost from December 17 through February 6, and we are almost guaranteed not to have frost from March 20 through November 1. My frost-free growing season is around 270 days. In other words, my growing season lasts about 74% of the year, so what have I got to complain about?

Meantime, I'm trying to take advantage of the beautiful - but windy - weather today to get some more plants moved into new beds and reminding myself that it is only 20 more days until that magical frost-free date.

Friday, February 4, 2011

So this is winter!

Well, now. Hasn't this been fun? At a time when we here near the humid Gulf Coast are usually preparing to prune our roses and plant our new perennials for the coming season and are dreading the early onslaught of summer's heat, we are hit with 20 degree temperatures and, in some places at least, snow and ice. So this is what winter is like!

It seems strange to have such cold weather for such an extended period in the month of February here in Southeast Texas, but the climate is changing and we probably had better brace ourselves for more of these extreme weather events in our future.

We had just the lightest dusting of snow in our yard when we got up this morning. I had to head into Northwest Houston for an appointment at mid-morning and the roads were clear. The bridge over Spring Creek and all the other bridges along the way had been treated with the de-icer and the overpass at Tomball had been closed as a precaution. The Department of Transportation had done a good job.

(And isn't it a comfort to us to know at a time like this that we have people out there on the job making the way safe for the rest of us? I wonder how often any of us really stop to think how much we owe to hard-working government employees who keep the wheels of society turning. They are often poorly paid and frequently vilified and demonized by a certain segment of the population, but we would be in a real mess without them. Of course, as a former government employee myself, I might be slightly prejudiced, but I really don't think I overstate the case. There. Now I feel better! But I digress...)

On my way back from my appointment, I stopped by Tractor Supply to get some more suet cakes and fruit and nut mix for the birds. They've been emptying my feeders at an alarming rate this week, and as soon as I got back home, I carried my new supplies outside to refill the feeders. I'm now having to refill some of the feeders, such as the thistle seed socks, every day.

After I finished filling the feeders, I went on a walk around the yard. I couldn't help noticing that many of my shrubs and perennials that had held onto their leaves until now were looking decidedly droopy today. I expect a lot of those leaves will be dropping over the next few days.

As I walked through the vegetable garden, I was a little surprised to see that even some of the brassica crops that usually shrug off our cold weather were looking a bit flattened. I think, though, that at least some of them will perk back up when the weather warms a bit.

That warm-up could come as early as this week-end, although the weather forecasters tell us we may be in for at least a couple more days of very cold weather next week. Ah, well, it gives me time to read and blog and get my Felcos ready for rose pruning. Because it will soon be time for that, you know.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The best way to prepare for a freeze? Know your zone and respect it.

Just when we here in Southeast Texas thought maybe it was safe to start thinking about spring, here comes Ol' Man Winter with his icy breath saying, "Hold on there! I'm not done with you yet!"

So far we've had a relatively mild winter (relative to last winter and relative to the rest of the country this winter) so it was a bit of a shock to see a prediction of four consecutive nights with temperatures in the low 20s and a possibility of teens on one night this week, but we really shouldn't be surprised. These things happen and, as gardeners, we should already have anticipated them and been prepared.

The mildness of recent winters here - all excepting last winter - has tempted many local gardeners to push the USDA hardiness zone envelope with their plantings. All those tropical beauties do issue siren calls to the gardener's ego as we walk down the nursery aisles and many gardeners have yielded to the call and planted them. Not that there's anything wrong with that, if you are willing to take the time and effort to protect them when a weather event like this week's comes calling. But I'm really not willing to do that, so I tend to stick to plants that I can be reasonably sure will survive winter in my yard, as well as summers here.

I'm just northwest of Houston. Our area is either zone 8a or 8b depending on which side of the curve in the road that you live on. The USDA says that minimum winter temperatures here are 10 - 15 degrees for 8a and 15 - 20 degrees for 8b. I'm in 8b and in 23 years here, as best I can recall, there was only once that the temperature went below 15, but there have been a few times when it got as low as the high teens as it did last winter. So I am convinced that the USDA knows whereof it speaks in regard to its plant hardiness zone information.

When you have good information based on scientific data, it is best to pay attention to it. Plants that you purchase at a nursery will almost always have a label that will tell you the zone or zones in which the plant can be successfully grown. Why would you want to set yourself up for failure by planting a plant that you know in advance will be unhappy in your yard and will probably not survive? I, for example, love lilacs and peonies, but they love colder winters and a different soil than I have to offer them, so I would never attempt to grow them in my yard. It would just make both of us - the plant and me - miserable.

So, you want to know how to be ready for the next freeze? Here it is:

1. KNOW YOUR ZONE. Everyone in our general area is going to be either an 8a/8b or 9a/9b. If you are in any doubt about your zone, study the USDA chart and find your yard and check the temperature range for that zone.

2. READ PLANT LABELS. And believe them! Choose plants that are known to be able to survive within your range of temperatures.

3. IF YOU IGNORE RULE #1 AND #2, STOCK UP ON FROST CLOTH AND CLOTHESPINS TO SECURE IT! And be prepared to protect your treasures when the temperatures drop.

Good luck with this week's freeze.

*****

And one more thing. Well, three more, actually.

1. If you have outside pets that cannot be brought into the house, please give them extra protection and a source of heat during the cold weather and provide extra nourishment to help them generate their own body heat.

2. Feed the birds! The cold is not a particular problem for them, but no food is. They are high-energy creatures and need a constant source of food to keep up that energy. They also need a source of water, so make sure the ice in the birdbaths is removed and fresh, clean water added.

3. If you have a pond with goldfish or koi as I do, unplug the pump for the duration of the freeze. It mixes the cold water on top of the pond with the warmer water on the bottom and makes life more difficult for the fish. They are cold water creatures so they can survive the cold, even if the pond freezes over, but you can give them that little bit of extra help by turning off the pump.