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

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The amazing growing pumpkin

A gardener named Ken Desrosier in Connecticut has grown a 1487 pound pumpkin! It is officially the largest pumpkin in the history of his state.  It took only two and a half months to grow.  That must be some fine soil that Ken has.

Not only did he grow this champion pumpkin, though, he recorded its growth with time-lapse photography.  This is just the most amazing thing I have seen lately.



I wonder what Charlie Brown would think of this.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The color of autumn

Driving around the Texas countryside this autumn is a rather depressing activity. All along the roadways one sees dried up ponds and dead trees.  Hundreds of dead trees.  Thousands of dead trees.

Even when I look out my back door, I see dead trees.  My old apple tree, which I've reported on here before, now appears to be completely dead.  It was badly diseased and a large section of the tree - one-half of the divided trunk - broke away and fell to the ground earlier this year.  The other half was still alive at the time and we made the decision to leave the rest of it standing until winter.  It's a favorite perching place for the birds, and the woodpeckers, especially the little Downies, are constantly scouring its bark for goodies.  I would simply leave it there for the wildlife, but I'm afraid at some point it will become unstable and, in a strong wind, it could fall on the fence between us and the neighbors.

The apple tree is not the only dead tree I see when I look across my yard.  True, the apple tree is the only one in my yard that has died, and that, I think, was more due to disease than to drought.  But beyond my backyard fence, the big pine trees in the bit of woods that still exist there are suffering badly.  I would estimate that at least half of them are already dead and others are looking extremely stressed.

 


For all of these trees, the autumn rains, if they come, will be too late.  It is the same with thousands of trees around the area.  At the end of this drought, whenever it comes, we will be looking out on a very changed landscape, and this year, the color of our autumn is brown.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Score another one for front-yard vegetable gardening!

It was the same old story we've read and heard about several times this summer but with a slightly different twist.  Adam Guerrero, a high school math teacher in Memphis, used his front yard to grow vegetables.  But he didn't stop there. He had beehives in the backyard.  He had a set-up for producing biodiesel and for making soap in his garage.  He was working on having a self-sustaining and self-sufficient food growing operation on his small urban lot.  Not only that but he was using the garden and the other operations as a way of teaching some of his students. After all, a concept of math is essential to gardening as it is to many activities in life, so what better way to learn than through the practical application of math principles?

Everything was going swimmingly and then someone complained.

It turns out that in Memphis, and perhaps other places as well, all it takes is one complaint for a person's yard to be labeled a "neighborhood nuisance" and the owner receives a citation from the city and has to defend himself.  In Guerrero's case, he was cited for failing to maintain his yard in a clean and sanitary condition free from rubbish or garbage.  When the complaint became public and local journalists went out to take a look, they failed to find any rubbish or garbage.  All they found was a neat, well-groomed vegetable garden.  Growing in the front-yard.

Kitchen Gardens International took up Mr. Guerrero's cause and publicized it. They generated petitions and thousands of emails, letters and phone calls to the Memphis City Council on Guerrero's behalf and yesterday the whole brouhaha ended happily.  The authorities found that there was no basis for the complaint and ended up offering to help Mr. Guerrero find space to start a community garden where others in the area can begin to grow their own food.

And so another blow was struck for the freedom of homeowners to be able to use their front-yards to grow food to help sustain themselves and their families.  What could be more basic and more commonsense than that?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

End of summer

It is the last full day of what has been a horrendous season.  Summer 2011 has been the most brutal in my memory.  I would hope to never see another like it, and yet I fear it may be an omen of summers to come in our changing climate.

But that is for the future.  For now, thinking about the end of summer reminded me of a poem I came across several weeks ago and I decided to look it up again today and share it with you.

End of Summer

By Stanley Kunitz (1905–2006)

An agitation of the air,
A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year
Would turn on its hinge that night.

I stood in the disenchanted field
Amid the stubble and the stones,
Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me
The song of my marrow-bones.

Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
That part of my life was over.

Already the iron door of the north
Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows
Order their populations forth,
And a cruel wind blows.

The changing of the seasons always has something of the bittersweet about it as we realize "That part of my life was over," but the change from summer to fall seems more sweet than bitter for me.  The sweet welcoming breath of autumn is refreshing beyond words after the heat of summer.

The "iron door of the north" has long since clanged open.  The migration of the birds and of the Monarch butterflies has been under way for weeks now and, in the case of the hummingbirds and some of the shorebirds, for months.  Their populations have been ordered forth ahead of the "cruel winds" of winter and they have heeded the call.

And now, I, too, heed the call as I make preparations to get my fall vegetable garden planted in time to benefit from any autumn rains that may fall.  (Fingers crossed!)  Goodbye and good riddance, Summer.  Welcome, sweet Autumn.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The pleasures of onion planting

We finally got some rain over the last couple of days.  I awoke Sunday morning to the sound of rain on the roof and against the window next to our bed.  I rolled over and went back to sleep.  The same thing happened Monday morning.  I could not believe my ears.  Rain!  Two days in a row.

On Sunday, we got just over three-tenths of an inch, and yesterday, we got seven-tenths, so, in total, we got just over an inch of rain.  Although it is nowhere near what we need, it was a nice down payment and the yard looked fresher for it.

I decided that yesterday would be a good time to work in the vegetable garden.  The soil was still damp and easily worked after the rain and I had some onions that needed planting.

They were multiplying onions that I had planted in the spring, and they had lived up to their name.  They had multiplied.  They had just about filled the space where they had been planted, so I planned to move them to a larger space.

I dug the bulbs and divided them, ending up with about 150 bulbs or sets.  Then I prepared an empty 8' x 4' raised bed to receive them, dug my holes and replanted them.  The entire process took perhaps two hours with a break in the middle.

What a joy it was to be working in the vegetable garden again, to feel the soil between my fingers as I pushed the bulbs in.  What a pleasure to see dirt under my nails once again!  There is really nothing like the intimate contact with the soil to make us feel connected to Mother Earth again.

It's a feeling I have missed during much of this long, hot summer when working in the garden in triple digit temperatures, except for the minimum necessary, has just been too unpleasant to contemplate.  But here we are at the end of that summer, just a few days from the Autumnal Equinox, and slowly - much too slowly - conditions are getting a bit better, and the prospect of actually getting a fall vegetable garden planted and watching it grow is enough to make me grin from ear to ear with pleasure.        

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The chocolate plant

I love it when I get to know a new plant.  Here's another one with which I was previously unfamiliar.

Last fall I attended a meet-up and plant swap with some of my fellow garden bloggers and gardeners.  I came away from that gathering much richer in plants. One of my acquisitions was something called a "chocolate plant."  Admittedly, I was not acquainted with it, but it was a small cutting with pretty leaves.  I took it home with me, and, looking around for some place to plant it, my eyes fell upon my Ficus benjamina which was in a large pot with plenty of room.  I stuck the little plant into the big pot with the medium-sized tree and sort of forgot it.  When the winter turned cold, the pot got pulled into my unheated garage.  By that time there was nothing showing but the ficus.  When the weather turned warm again, I returned the pot to the backyard and one day I noticed there was something besides the tree growing there.  It seemed to be a ground cover of some kind and I had to scratch my head to remember what it was.  Then the light bulb went off - chocolate plant!

I did a little research and learned that the chocolate plant is properly called Pseuderanthemum alatum.  It is a low-growing (about 10 inches tall) herb native to Mexico and Central America.  It is grown primarily for the beauty of its leaves which are coppery-brown with silver blotches.  The leaves can get pretty big, up to 6 inches long by 4.5 inches wide.  My instinct upon seeing it growing in my ficus pot was correct; it is often used as a ground cover.

When my new plant continued to grow this spring and threatened to take over the ficus pot, I lifted it and put it in a 12-inch pot of its own.  It now fills that pot and in the last couple of weeks it has started to put up some bloom spikes.

 Here's an overview of the plant that now makes its home in its pot in my little front entry sitting area.  You can see why it is grown for its leaves.  They are quite showy.

 A side view of the plant shows how it has completely filled its pot.

Here's a close-up of one of the bloom spikes.  These racemes can get to be about 18 inches tall and the blooms open in turn from the bottom to the top.  There don't happen to be any blossoms open today but you can see that a couple of the buds are about to pop open.  When they do open, the flowers look much like African violets.  They are very pretty.

I have found, more or less through trial and error, that the plant seems happiest when it is in partial shade and it likes to be kept moist but not soggy.  The plant did die back completely during last winter, but perhaps that was because it was in a rather cold place.  If I had brought it into the house, it might well have stayed leafy and beautiful all winter.  Some articles I've read indicate that the plants reseed readily.  We'll see about that.  They are mainly propagated by cuttings.

I've enjoyed getting to know this beautiful plant over the last year.  I think it is a keeper, and I look forward to a long-term relationship with it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September 2011

Boring.  That, I am afraid, is the theme of this Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day in my zone 8B garden here outside of Houston.  Same boring heat.  Same boring drought.  And pretty much the same boring blossoms I've been showing you all summer.

What, indeed, could be more boring than Hamelia patens?  It is boringly predictable and dependable.  Starts blooming in late spring and blooms all the way to the first frost - usually in December.  Nothing exciting at all, except when the hummingbirds are in town.  Then it is a hive of activity and a smile a minute.

The almond verbena has been every bit as predictable as the Hamelia, with the added frisson of that heavenly scent that wafts through its section of the garden, especially late in the day.

Tithonia has proven itself again this summer as a true SUNflower.  Yes, it does wilt badly in the middle of the day, but that is just a ploy.  It is undaunted by the heat and the drought.

'Montrose Purple' Vitex has had several flushes of bloom throughout spring and summer.  I've lost track of the number, but they are always welcome.

And, of course, there are always the yellow bells of Esperanza.  I'm afraid we just take it for granted here.

What would our late summer gardens be without the wonderful salvias?

Well, here's something that is not exactly boring.  It is the chocolate plant, Pseuderanthemum alatum.   As you can see, it has sent up two small bloom spikes, although the blooms are not quite there yet.  It may be cheating just a little bit to include it here, but, my blog, my rules!

The yellow cestrum has been in bloom continually - no exaggeration! - since early spring.  This plant has not missed a beat and it has been a constant magnet for butterflies and bees.

I'm fascinated by the weird blossoms of the purple porterweed.  So, too, are any butterflies that happen to be in the area.

 Jatropha has been another faithful - boringly faithful - bloomer this summer.  It seems to thrive on the heat and the drought.

'Pride of Barbados' features the hot colors of summer.


Finally, a hint, perhaps, that autumn is actually on the way.  The garlic chives are in bloom.  Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, they, too, are great favorites with the butterflies.

In just over a week, autumn will actually be here.  That long-awaited and longed-for season, the favorite of so many gardeners, including myself.  We can only hope that September 23 does in fact bring an end to this interminable summer not just on the calendar and that we finally get some relief from our heat and drought.  And I hope that in October I will have something to show you that is not at all boring!

Don't forget to visit our wonderful hostess Carol at May Dreams Gardens and see the list of other very non-boring gardens that are participating in this Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.

Thank you for visiting my garden.  Happy Bloom Day!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dreaming of autumn planting

Tonight the beautiful Harvest Moon will be hanging like a Christmas ornament in our cloudless black velvet sky.  It is the traditional symbol of a time of plenty, the time of harvest after a bountiful growing season.  But things are topsy-turvy this year and it hasn't been a very bountiful growing season.  Most of my spring and summer vegetable garden burned up in the early and intense heat and never reached its potential.  But now autumn is almost here and the itch to plant is with me again.

My husband keeps urging me to wait.  Wait until the rains come because we can't continue to run up big budget-busting water bills every month.  But I don't have any confidence that the rains will come.  That witch La Nina seems to be on the prowl again, threatening to steal our fall and winter moisture.  So, I'm looking around for vegetables that might survive in low moisture conditions and still produce for me.  At least they won't have to deal with triple digit temperatures.  Or will they?  

Anyway, it is time to plant an autumn vegetable garden.  That big moon in the sky tells me so, and regardless of heat or drought and perhaps the prospects of another unusually cold winter, I feel the need to get those seeds in the ground.

I can start small.  I have some multiplying onions that need to be divided and reset and I have one small 8' x 4' raised bed that is ready for planting - the perfect match!  Vegetables that grow underground don't necessarily like a lot of water anyway, because it can rot them, so perhaps the onions will not mind the dry conditions.  They've survived this summer, and that's a good sign.

Next, I've been perusing my Wood Prairie Farm catalog, a source for organic seed potatoes.  I have another bed, 16' x 4' that is ready for planting.  I had one of my few successful crops, green beans, there in spring and summer, so I think it should be in good shape to grow some potatoes now.  Again, potatoes don't like wet conditions so they should love this bed with the little moisture I'll be able to provide them.

All the other beds in my vegetable garden will require some preparation before I can plant, but I have recruited some help and, soon enough, they should be ready for broccoli, collards, kale, carrots, lettuce, sugar snap peas.  Ummm... my mouth waters just thinking about it!

The gardener's spirit is undaunted and undauntable.  A new season coming is a new reason to hope - to hope that things will be different this time.  After all, those temperatures will be moderating, however slowly, and the harsh summer that we've had has had at least one positive effect.  The insect pests have been knocked back by it.  I hardly saw any leaf-footed stinkbugs, my insect nemesis, all spring and summer.

So I will plant my fall vegetable garden and water it when I can and hope for the best.  When the full Harvest Moon shines overhead, it renews my faith that all things are possible.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A first for the season

The change in the weather this week has brought a flurry of migrants to my garden.  Most of them have had feathers like this female Rufous Hummingbird, a first for my yard who has brought quite a lot of excitement for one backyard birder.

Female Rufous Hummingbird at 'Texas Star' hibiscus.

But finally today, I had my first migrant of the season of quite another kind.  At about the middle of the day, the very first Monarch butterfly of the fall migration came to rest on a garlic chive blossom in my backyard.  He sat there sipping for some time as I watched.  Then I headed into the house to get the camera to try to record the event.  Of course, by the time I got back outside, he had moved on, but I was finally able to chase him down.

  You can tell he's a male by the two black spots in the middle of his hindwings.

Since he's a male, there won't be any eggs left behind from this visitor, but I'm hoping he is the harbinger of more of the brightly-colored fliers to come.  Soon, perhaps, there will be a female who will be happy for all the milkweed that is growing rampantly in my garden.  And I will be happy to welcome her and any eggs she chooses to leave with me.  

Meantime, today's visitor did not tarry long.  Soon, I saw him winging south once again, determined to make his way to the mountains of Mexico.  Fair weather and safe travel to him and all the millions of his brothers and sisters to come. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Flies as pollinators

Last week I showed you the first bloom of my Stapelia gigantea plant and I mentioned that these plants are supposedly pollinated by flies. The blooms allegedly can have a rather putrid odor which attracts the flies, although the first bloom on my plant did not seem to have a terribly objectionable odor.  That could have been because the plant was growing outside.  If it had been in a closed space, the scent might have been more noticeable.

I watched for flies to find that first bloom, but as far as I know, they never did.  I never saw a single fly on the plant.

This week, though, the second and third blooms have opened on the plant and it is a whole different story.  The flies were out in force today.

  There is one fly visible in the center of this bloom.

There are three flies investigating the blossom here.

They headed right into the center of the bloom, which is just what the plant wants.

These confused flies may be wondering, "Where is the yummy carrion?"

When they head back out again, they will be carrying a nice load of Stapelia pollen.

I watched as a steady stream of flies visited the plant today.  I still could not detect any really bad odor from the bloom, but apparently the scent was powerful enough to have wafted its calling card around the yard.  Even if I couldn't detect it, obviously the flies could.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Lee is a bust

All day long yesterday, I watched the weather radar as Tropical Storm Lee slowly, ever so slowly, moved in my direction.  It was dumping huge amounts of rain all over the Gulf Coast area and it appeared that this might be our best chance in months to actually get rain that amounted to something.

Yesterday was one of our regular watering days on the restricted watering schedule.  Saturday is the day that I usually give a deep soaking to the big live oak trees in our front yard, but yesterday I decided not to water because it looked like Nature would actually do it for me.  And so I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Nothing.

By the time I went to bed last night, I was sending silent apologies to my trees.  I knew it wasn't going to rain.  Again.

The tropical storm system pushed across Louisiana, into Texas, and right up to my front doorstep and then it just - poof! - vanished.  As far as I know, we didn't get a drop of moisture.    

Friday, September 2, 2011

Stapelia gigantea

Last year, at a plant swap, my friend Ursula gave me a stem cutting from her Stapelia gigantea.  She called it her "stinky."

This plant is sometimes commonly known as "carrion flower" or "toad plant."  Corpse flowers had been much in the news in Houston last summer because of  Lois, the giant corpse flower that was in bloom at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  Stapelia gigantea is not the same plant, but it does bear the same common name and for the same reason.  Its blossoms are said to smell like carrion and they are pollinated by flies.

I was curious to see how my new stem cutting would grow.  It looks a bit like a cactus, a four-sided, spineless cactus, and so I treated it like one.  After letting it callous over for a few days, I stuck it in a pot with another plant and then I sort of forgot about it for a while.  One day weeks later I happened to glance its way and found that it had rooted and had begun growing a new section.  I took it up and put it in its own pot.

Since then, it has grown several new limbs and looks very healthy, and over the last couple of weeks, I've noticed that it appeared to be developing buds.  Over the last several days, the growth of the buds has really taken off.

 Several buds are visible here, in various stages of development.

Then, just this week, one of the buds swelled to enormous proportions.

How big would it get, I wondered, before it began to open?

I didn't have to wonder long!  Yesterday when I went outside, the big bud had popped open.  According to the plant's description, its flowers can be as much as 10-16 inches across, but this one is more like 8 inches. 

Inside the blossom is this circular fleshy disk, which, if you squint, looks a little like a fly.  Perhaps this is meant to help entice flies to come inside?  The blossom has a bit of a musty smell but isn't really very carrion-like.

This fascinating plant is native to South Africa.  It needs well-drained soil and moderate water and full sun during the growing season.  It can withstand extreme heat, as my plant has proved by living on a table in my backyard where it gets the full brunt of the afternoon sun all this extremely hot season.  The plant will appreciate a cool, dry place to rest in winter.  It spent last winter in my garage and did just fine, so I expect to put it back there this winter.  The plant's normal bloom time is September so this one is right on schedule. It is full of many more buds of all sizes so I should be able to enjoy its unusual blooms for many weeks.  

Stapelia gigantea really is such an interesting plant and brings back lovely memories of a nice day with gardening friends. As I always say, passalong plants are the very best kind of plants.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September

The beginning of September, a glimpse of autumn just over the horizon, makes us all feel a bit poetic, I think.  Not surprisingly, it has the same effect on actual poets.  Here's Helen Hunt Jackson's ode to the month.

SEPTEMBER
by: Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885)
      HE golden-rod is yellow;
      The corn is turning brown;
      The trees in apple orchards
      With fruit are bending down.
       
      The gentian's bluest fringes
      Are curling in the sun;
      In dusty pods the milkweed
      Its hidden silk has spun.
       
      The sedges flaunt their harvest,
      In every meadow nook;
      And asters by the brook-side
      Make asters in the brook.
       
      From dewy lanes at morning
      The grapes' sweet odors rise;
      At noon the roads all flutter
      With yellow butterflies.
       
      By all these lovely tokens
      September days are here,
      With summer's best of weather,
      And autumn's best of cheer.
       
      But none of all this beauty
      Which floods the earth and air
      Is unto me the secret
      Which makes September fair.
       
      'T is a thing which I remember;
      To name it thrills me yet:
      One day of one September
      I never can forget.

"September" is reprinted from Poems. Helen Jackson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1892.

Let us hope that, before this month is too old, our yards will "flutter with yellow butterflies" and that we will have "the summer's best of weather" and "autumn's best of cheer."  I'm ready for the September change.