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

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gardening, climate change, and sustainability

I've discovered a wonderful new book for gardeners called The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening.  This book features chapters written by a diverse group of knowledgeable horticulturists and gardeners on a variety of subjects such as the new American meadow garden, balancing natives and exotics in the garden, landscapes that welcome wildlife, the sustainable edible garden, gardening sustainably in a changing climate, and on and on. There are eleven chapters in all, edited and introduced by Thomas Christopher, who has been reporting on gardening and environmental issues for more than twenty-five years. The thing that ties all these various chapters together is that they feature a sustainable approach to gardening.

The subjects that are covered affect gardeners everywhere and the writers' commonsense step-by-step approach demonstrates how gardeners' sustainable practices positively shape our environment. Gardeners, after all, are on the front line of defense as we struggle to deal with problems like loss of habitat, water shortages, shrinking biodiversity, and, the biggie, global climate change, and how we garden in our own backyard can have an impact for good or ill on each of those important issues.

Some of the suggestions here for improving our sustainable gardening practices include the following:

1. Plant a tree. If you can only do one thing, this may be the very best thing you can do to help the environment. Trees take up CO2 and reduce emissions from air conditioning. Furthermore, they help to cool our yards and houses - another reason that we here in Texas need to do everything within our power to save trees during this drought.

2. Recycle and reduce use of disposable products. For example, do not use non-biodegradable mulches such as those made of plastic. Use natural, organic mulches.

3. Improve nitrogen fertilizer use efficiency. One of the writers suggests, for example, using clover/grass mixes for your lawn. Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil.

4. Reduce fossil fuel usage. Use tools that do not require fossil fuels whenever possible and use the ones that do require fossil fuel as sparingly as possible.

5. Increase soil carbon sequestration. One way to do this is to employ a no-till, no-dig method of gardening known as lasagna gardening. It involves layering rather than tilling and has become increasingly popular among organic gardeners.

6. Use renewable energy sources whenever possible.

These suggestions and this book work for gardeners with a wide range of experience. Both the veteran gardener and the newbie can learn a lot here. This is an impressive and thought-provoking book, one that belongs on the shelf of every gardener who is concerned about the environment and the future of the planet. That, I think, is every gardener.



(An Advance Review Copy of this book was provided to me at no cost by the publisher, Timber Press, for the purposes of this review.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Reporting on migrating Monarchs

The Monarch butterfly migration is under way and Journey South, the citizen science project that tracks them, wants you to report your sightings.  Your observations can help the scientists get a more complete picture of how the migration is proceeding.  You can sign up and sign in at the link above and start sending them your information.

The Journey South people urge us to make a report at least once a week as long as Monarchs are present.  You can report anytime you see a Monarch.  I don't personally have any confirmed sightings of one of the butterflies yet, although I thought I might have seen one today.  We were on State Highway 249 headed north and I saw a butterfly high above the traffic, as migrating Monarchs typically fly, and it was headed southeast.  But I couldn't see it well enough to be sure that is what it was, so I won't report it.

The Journey South site has several maps which help to illustrate and track the migration.  It is very interesting to check in on them once or twice a week just to see the progress of the fliers.

I'm not really expecting much from this year's migration.  I'll be happy just to encounter a few of the beauties in my yard.  If they do visit me, they will find plenty of milkweed on which to feed and to lay their eggs.  I'm hoping I'll have some of that action to report along the way.

If you haven't already signed on to Journey South, I encourage you to do so and take part in this important project.  The bits of information which you can provide may be just what the scientists are looking for.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Native prairie grasses - the dry garden's salvation?

The drought in Texas has gone on so long and become so severe that it is actually capturing attention in the national press.  In this week's New York Times online, for example, there is a long article about the use of prairie grasses in gardens around Austin where they have already had more than seventy days of 100 degree weather this summer and just about as little rain (or maybe less) as we have had.  It's a well-written, well-documented piece and it may hold some of the answers for the future of gardening in an increasingly dry and hot environment as the planet continues to heat up.

I was interested to read in the piece about the bison which escaped from its pasture and high-tailed it over to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center where it was able to munch on the stands of prairie grasses that grow there.  I'd say that was one smart bison!

There was also a comment in the story about how "shallow-rooted crape myrtles" were suffering in the drought.  I have to say that hasn't really been my experience with the crape myrtles in my yard.  They have withstood the drought very well, but perhaps it is because of the difference between the soils of Austin as opposed to Southeast Texas.

There can be little doubt, however, that the plants that thrive best in our current trying conditions are the native plants that have acclimated to the area through millennia of evolution.  And among those tough plants, some of the very toughest are the prairie grasses.  We could do worse than to find a place for them in our gardens.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Time of the butterflies

As the interminable drought of 2010-11 has dragged on, one of the things that has been most distressing to habitat gardeners has been the paucity of butterflies. Normally, in my area, from spring through autumn, we are treated to a constant but ever-changing kaleidoscope of colors from the bright wings of these most beautiful of insects.  This year, not so much.

It seems evident that the drought and the increasing and unrelenting heat have impacted the insects' ability to successfully reproduce.  I would guess that the eggs are being dried out and the embryos damaged and destroyed before they can hatch.

Whatever the cause, the absence of butterflies, particularly at this time of year when they are usually most plentiful, has been very noticeable.  It's like missing an old friend.  Moreover, unlike birds or other small critters that visit our gardens, there is not a lot that we can do to help butterflies, other than providing their food and host plants and a source of  moisture for them, but if the insects simply aren't present, providing those things cannot increase their numbers.

With all of that as a background, it was with some delight that, during the past week, I noticed a definite increase in the number and variety of butterflies in my garden.  On Wordless Wednesday, I showed you a Pipevine Swallowtail that was visiting the yard.  Here are some others that have been present during the week.

The beauteous Gulf Fritillaries have returned, not in their usual abundance, but in twos, threes, and fours.  Not a day went by last week when I didn't encounter them in the garden.

 Fritillaries, like most butterflies, love tithonia.

Gulf Fritillary with partially open wings.

A Fritillary among the flame acanthus, another butterfly favorite.

If I had an actual favorite butterfly, it might be this one, the Giant Swallowtail.  There have been one or two around the garden in the last few days and they always visit the citrus trees.

Also, I've had several of these Spicebush Swallowtails visiting.  They are especially fond of the flame acanthus.  Notice the double row of orange dots on the hind wing and contrast that with...

...the Pipevine Swallowtail which has only one row of the large orange dots.

Soon, the migrating Monarch butterflies should be passing through here and, often, at this time of year, we also get their cousins, the Queens, so we have much to look forward to and to look out for in coming weeks.  I would expect the Monarchs' migration to have greatly reduced numbers this year, but when they arrive in my yard, they will find lush stands of butterfly weed that have had nothing to nibble on them since the ladybugs destroyed the last of the aphid hordes earlier this summer.  If they need a place to deposit their eggs, the milkweed is waiting! 

And the gardener is waiting and hoping.  Let the time of the butterflies begin.

   

Monday, August 15, 2011

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - August 2011

I look out at my garden as our long Texas drought grinds on and I think that I really have nothing to show you on this Bloom Day, but I dutifully take my camera in hand and head out to see what I can find.  Come along with me out my back door and I'll show you the results of my search.

Just out the back door on the porch, yellow purslane brightens the space. 

 Nearby, the ancient abelia that I brought from my Aunt Marcelle's garden a few years ago is full of these dainty, creamy blooms.

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The Mexican firebush (Hamelia patens) does appear to be spouting flames in the summer heat.

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The crocosmias have been especially floriferous this summer, but now they are near the end of their run.

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No blooms here, but a small collection of succulents on a backyard table is enjoying our dry summer.

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As is a nearby planter filled with a variety of succulents.

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The old canna that I always think of as the "Mrs. Lui" because it was she who gave me the first roots of the plant years ago blooms continually throughout the summer, in memory of that sweet neighbor.

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And, of course, nothing stops the Turk's cap blooms, for which the hummingbirds are grateful.

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The purple berries of the native beautyberry are ripening.

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In another part of the garden, the berries of the white beautyberry glow in the shade.

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My "cotton crop" is ripening, too. The white blossoms turn red as they age.

The tiny red blossoms of the cypress vine brighten one corner of the vegetable garden fence.

 And the 'Mystic Spires' salvia, like most of the other salvias in the yard, blooms on in spite of the weather.

The canna 'Lucifer' has bloomed again and again since spring.

The odd blossoms of the porterweed attract bees and butterflies by the veggie garden fence.

And across the garden path from the porterweed, the bright fuchsia bracts of the bougainvillea are beginning to show their stuff.

Butterfly weed continues to bloom profusely but finds few butterflies to visit.  The bees, though, love it.

The yellow bells of Esperanza shine in front of the leathery leaves of loquat.

Flame acanthus, undaunted bloomer, blooms when it rains and blooms when it doesn't.  It will bloom until first frost.

The 'Pride of Barbados' has been a winner for me during the drought.

And I can always depend upon Tithonia, Mexican sunflower, to bring its fiery orange blooms to my summer garden.

Even though my garden is dry and is in survival mode, dropping leaves, wilting, receding before the scorching sun, in nearly every part of it, something blooms to keep hope alive.

Thank you for visiting my garden and don't forget to check out May Dreams Gardens for a list of all of this Bloom Day's participants.  Happy Bloom Day to all!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Green Corn Moon

It's my favorite time of month once again - the time of the full moon.

For the last couple of nights, I've been out walking in the garden at night and looking up at the growing moon.  It never fails to astonish me just how lovely it is and how lovely it makes everything here below appear in its soft white light.  In the moonlight, even my parched garden looks lush as the leaves bask in an altogether friendly light that does not burn and dry.

This month's moon is really the first of three "harvest moons."  In some areas of the country, harvest is under way in August.  The traditional name for this month's full moon is the Green Corn Moon or the Grain Moon, in recognition of the beginning of the grain harvest.  Some Native American tribes, those living around the Great Lakes and along the great rivers, had another name for it - the Sturgeon Moon.  This was the month when that giant fish was most easily caught.

But whatever name it is known by, the full moon marks the passage of time.  That seems especially poignant and bittersweet to me since I marked my birthday just a few days ago.  How many of these Sturgeon/Grain/Green Corns Moons have I looked upon?  I'm not telling!  More than I care to count.

Each full moon marks another step through the year and through the seasons.  We'll have one more full moon in summer and then we'll be marking the autumnal equinox.  We can only hope that by then this terrible summer of weather will be in our rear view mirror, but there are no guarantees.  Sometimes our summers pay no attention to the calendar and extend right into October.  The way things have gone this year, I would fully expect this to be one of those years when that happens.

But never mind that now.  The sun has dipped below the horizon and in a little while the Green Corn Moon will be rising.  Even though the corn harvest in Texas this year has been mostly nonexistent, under the light of the moon tonight, we can forget all that for a little while.  Forget the drought and the heat and the crop failures.  Forget the inevitable birthdays.  Look up and smile and for a while, just enjoy BEING.

    

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Monday, August 8, 2011

Critters and the drought

In my own yard, my drought has been going on for over a year now.  June 2010 was the last month in which we had normal rainfall, and the drought combined with triple digit temperatures day after day is putting a lot of pressure on the animals which live in and around my yard.

Lately, we see raccoons regularly during daylight hours.  These normally nocturnal visitors evidently are not able to find sufficient food at night and are having to venture out during the day.  There was a litter of four baby raccoons that were born and grew to juvenile status around our yard.  For a while, I continued to see all four of them together.  Then there were two that were still foraging in the yard.  Now there is only one left.  The other three have either moved on to other territories or something unfortunate has happened to them.  The one that is left is the smallest one of the litter and is still only about half grown.  He takes refuge under our garden shed and comes out to cadge dry cat food or other scraps that I leave out for him.  (I don't really approve of feeding raccoons and I don't recommend it.  This one just looked so thin and pathetic I couldn't help myself.  He does look healthier now and I'll have to wean him soon.)

Turtles are another matter.  I don't have any qualms about providing tidbits of food for them.  Long-time readers of the blog may remember Sam Box, the female box turtle that lived in our backyard for over 20 years and often visited our little back porch/patio to get treats.

Sam Box in the summer of 2009, the last summer that we saw her.

Sam never turned up last year and hasn't been seen this year either.  I must assume that she no longer walks among us.  Box turtles are highly territorial so it is inconceivable that she would have wandered away.  I think she had probably reached the end of her long lifespan.  But she did not leave us turtle-less.  Last summer, a tiny baby box turtle turned up in the yard and followed the same routine as Sam, coming to the back porch for handouts.  I dubbed him "Son of Sam," later shortened to Samson, and this summer he has returned.  When I am late getting up, as I was this morning, I will often find him already on the back porch waiting for his treat.

Samson - Little Sammy.

Of course, the great majority of critters that visit my yard have feathers, and we've definitely seen more of them than we usually do this summer.  Normally, during summer the birdfeeders are fairly quiet.  Not this year.  I refill the feeders every couple of days and the birdbaths every day and the seeds and water disappear as if by magic.  One of my birdfeeders is available to squirrels as well and that feeder empties in a day, sometimes in a few hours.

The drought does not seem to have hampered the lizard, toad, and frog populations.  I see plenty of them - of all sizes - every day as I go about my tasks.  However, I think it has definitely affected the butterfly population.   Usually, by this time of summer, the yard would be full of their fluttering wings.  This year, not so much, which is why I was so happy to see this beauty today.

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly feeding on tithonia, Mexican sunflower, today.

Perhaps she is a harbinger of more to come.

The drought and the heat have been very hard on our gardens and very hard on us, but it has definitely taken a toll on wildlife as well.  While I tend to be in the camp of those who advise non-interference with the processes of Nature, this is an exceptional time and I don't yet have it in me to be able to watch an animal starve when I might be able to help it.  So, I'll continue for at least a while longer to leave scraps around for the hungry raccoon under my garden shed and I'll keep filling the birdfeeders as often as they empty and turn a blind eye to the thievery of the squirrels.  And, of course, I'll make sure Little Sammy has his treats and that all the critters have plenty of fresh, clean water every day.

It's tough out there and just now going the extra mile to help our fellow creatures who share our yards seems the right thing to do. 
  

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Weeds: The plants we love to hate

Richard Mabey loves weeds.  He admires their tenacity, exuberance, and ingenuity, their ability to lodge themselves in the most unlikely places (Ever seen a dandelion growing in a crack in the sidewalk pavement?) and to thrive there. Weeds are survivors and if we can get past our prejudices, Mabey thinks we might just learn a lot from them.

To help us in the process of that learning, he has written a book,  Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants.  Since Mabey is billed as "Britain's foremost nature writer," maybe we should listen to him.

The book is a comprehensive survey of the biological and cultural history of weeds in art, folklore, literature, and medicine.  As Mabey points out, when land is stripped and shattered by natural or man-made disasters, the first colonizers to return are weeds.  They stabilize the soil and curb water loss.  They also provide shelter for other plants, as well as food and shelter for animals.  Mabey says that after the end of World War II, a survey was done of bomb craters in London and 126 different plant species were found growing in them, stabilizing the damaged soil and preventing the runoff of water.

Of course, throughout history, weeds have served as food, fuel, medicine, dyes, and building materials for humans, and, also, for a variety of other animals including insects, birds, and mammals.  Weed seeds have been spread around the world by human activity and many weeds have evolved to mimic the size, shape, height, and coloring of plants favored by humans for food, thus enhancing their chances of avoiding the hoe or the scythe or the gardener's fingers.

No matter how much gardeners and farmers may gnash their teeth and wring their hands over the presence of  weeds in their plots, the plain truth is that weeds are indomitable.  They are here to stay, and perhaps we would do well to adjust our perspective of them.  They may be considered invaders in our petunia bed, but they are, in fact, a part of the heritage and legacy of a place, and surely they deserve some respect for that.

And if you are still unimpressed, here is a philosophical take that Mabey has on his subject:  Pulling weeds from the earth builds human character!  Even in their removal and death, they possess the Zen-like ability to slow us down, give us time to meditate, and, in short, to improve human nature.  The next time I'm struggling to remove those damnable pepper vines that grow everywhere in my yard, I'll try to remember that I'm being "improved" by the process.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Nicky

Nicholas
2001 - 2011
Ten years was much too brief a time.
Best of cats.
My baby.
R.I.P.

Monday, August 1, 2011

"Don't just do something. Stand there!"

Every summer it seems, there are lots of stories in the news about homeowners' conflicts with city codes or homeowners' associations regarding the landscaping and care of their yards.  I recently wrote here about one such conflict in Michigan, which ultimately ended happily.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran across another such story in The New York Times, concerning a homeowner in Philadelphia.  The story has been rattling around in my head since then.  I was struck by the philosophy which the subject of the story had embraced in landscaping her yard.  It was expressed succinctly as, "Don't just do something.  Stand there!"

In this case, the homeowner was actually a landscape designer named Margie Ruddick who had experience in designing ecological landscapes.  She had worked with various design firms in other cities, but, after a divorce, she relocated to Philadelphia.  After the move and renovations and remodeling to the house that she had bought, she had little money left for landscaping.  That's when she decided to make a virtue of necessity and to let Mother Nature landscape her yard.  It turned out that Mother Nature let the "weeds" grow too high to please the City of Philadelphia and she got a summons for being in violation of property maintenance codes for having weeds over 10 inches high.

As a professional landscape designer, though, Ms. Ruddick was well-equipped to argue her case.  She knew that the plants that were growing in her yard were not really "weeds" but native plants that were important to the environment.  In March of this year, she went before a hearings officer in the city Department of Licenses and Inspections, armed with photographs of her yard and lists of the plants with their botanical (Latin) names attached.  She was able to persuade the judge that she actually knew what she was doing and the case was dropped.

On her part, Ms. Ruddick admitted that perhaps the yard did look a bit unruly and unkempt and she hired a gardener to help her bring a little order to it.  They pruned and put in a few mowed paths to show the neighbors that there was an actual plan and that the growth was not entirely haphazard.  She has also planted some magnolias, viburnums, and holly trees to give more shape and focus to the landscape.  From this distance, it looks like a perfect compromise:  Each side gave a little and the result was a better product.

Ms. Ruddick's yard is a habitat garden and she proudly displays her sign from the National Wildlife Federation that shows hers is a "certified wildlife habitat."  I have one of those signs in my yard, and I, too, display it proudly.  As Ms. Ruddick says, "You have to allow a certain amount of mess to create a habitat," and that is a point well-taken by anyone who seeks to create a garden that is wildlife-friendly.  In general, animals are not most comfortable in a landscape that is perfectly tonsured.  They prefer that things look a little raggedy and natural.  Maybe that's why most of them seem to like my backyard.  Raggedy describes it pretty well.  Perfectly tonsured it's not.

One of the happiest trends in gardening in recent years, to my way of thinking, has been the growing number of gardeners who recognize that beauty does not only reside in a perfectly manicured lawn with a few perfectly manicured shrubs around the edges.  A more natural look can be just as beautiful, and, in the opinion of a lot of us, much more beautiful.   For those who enjoy seeing wildlife in their yards, the natural look is the way to make them feel welcome.  To get started on such a look, you could do worse than to embrace Ms. Ruddick's philosophy:  "Don't just do something.  Stand there!"  Stand and watch while Mother Nature shows you the way.