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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Moving on

The blooms of the Carolina jessamine signal the changing of the seasons. Winter is almost over. Spring is breathing down its neck.

As change comes to Nature and the garden, I have made the difficult decision to change some things in my life as well.

For the past few years, I have published on three separate but related blogs - Backyard Birder where I wrote about birds, The Nature of Things where I wrote about whatever happened to be on my mind that day, and, of course, this blog where I have discussed my experiences with gardening in Southeast Texas. I have greatly enjoyed doing the blogs and especially the relationships that I have developed with many readers during that time. But now I find that I need to cut back on the time that I spend sitting in front of a computer. For one thing, I need to have more time and energy to devote to actual gardening!

In tracking my blogs over the last several weeks, it is evident to me that The Nature of Things is the most popular of the three. Indeed, the number of viewers there is almost double the total for the other two blogs combined, and so I have decided to discontinue writing for the two less popular blogs and fold them into the one that gets the most traffic. Consequently, I will be taking my musings on gardening and on birds to The Nature of Things and expanding that blog to include those subjects. I hope that by concentrating on only one blog, I will be able to improve the quality of my writing as well as the diversity of the subjects covered.

This blog is now six-and-a-half years old which is actually quite a long life span in the world of blogging where many don't make it beyond their first month and the first burst of enthusiasm. I prefer to think that this is not actually the end of the blog but that it is simply moving on into its next logical stage of life.

To all of my readers who have faithfully followed my scribblings over the years, thank you so much! You will never know how much your support and especially your comments have meant to me. Can I dare to hope that you will visit me at The Nature of Things and that you will continue to follow me there? My first "new" post regarding my garden will appear there tomorrow.

Spring is coming and with it hope is renewed, and so I do dare to dream that I will meet you again and hear your comments at my new (or other) address.

Happy gardening!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Great Backyard Bird Count 2014

(Cross-posted from Backyard Birder.)

How did you spend your Presidents' Day weekend? I spent mine counting birds.


Yes, this was the weekend for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, an activity that has now gone global. Beginning last year, the Count started accepting reports not just from North America but from all around the world. When I last checked the website, reports had been received this year from every continent except Antarctica. Participants count birds in their own yards or other designated places.

This year, I counted birds in my yard as I always do, and on Saturday I also did a count at Brazos Bend State Park. We had a family cookout there to celebrate our older daughter's birthday, and, of course, I insisted that we go on a bird walk after lunch.

In fact, the highlight of my weekend counting came on that walk. It was around 3:00 in the afternoon and we were walking around Forty-Acre Lake when we heard two Barred Owls calling to each other in the woods nearby.  Since I do my bird counting during daylight hours, it isn't often that I get to list an owl species, but Barred Owls frequently become active in mid to late afternoon hours and, fortunately for me, these two certainly were!

I ended my day with 31 species counted at the park. With more time and effort, I could have probably doubled that, but, after all, birding was my secondary activity on this particular day.

On the other three days of the four-day holiday weekend, I observed and counted birds in my yard. My goal for the weekend was 40 species, but I ended with only 34. As always when I do an official count of birds in my yard, I was frustrated by the no-shows, the birds that I know are there but that just didn't turn up during my count period.

Where was that Pileated Woodpecker that has been so active in the area in recent weeks? Where are the Eastern Phoebes? I haven't seen one in my yard all winter. Where was the Red-tailed Hawk that flies over my yard every day - except for this weekend? That Killdeer that flies over and calls noisily on occasion - where was it this weekend?

And on most days I can count on flyovers in the late afternoon from a number of waterbirds and waders, but this weekend? Nary a one showed a feather.

Perhaps most frustratingly of all, the tiny Brown-headed Nuthatch did not make an appearance. I didn't even hear it calling during the time that I was counting.

For most of the weekend, I thought I would have to include the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on my list of no-shows, but just at about 6:00 this afternoon as the light was fading and I was about to call it a count and head indoors, I heard the sapsucker calling in the big pine tree just across the fence in my neighbor's yard. I looked up and finally was able to find it far, far up the 100+ foot tree.


 It was really too dark for this picture, but I had to give it a try after waiting so long for him.

Encouraged, I decided to wait just a few more minutes to see if something wonderful might turn up. Nothing did. My last bird of the day, the last bird of my count was that Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.


*~*~*~*

Here are the 34 species that did deign to show themselves for my yard count.

Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Eurasian Collared-Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove 
Inca Dove
Rufous Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin 
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-Winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird 
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

*~*~*~*


And here is the species list from Brazos Bend.

Blue-winged Teal
Northern Pintail
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Anhinga
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
White Ibis
Glossy/White-faced Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Killdeer
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Crested Caracara
Loggerhead Shrike
American Crow
Tree Swallow 
Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Wren
Tufted Titmouse
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
American Goldfinch

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Rose pruning season

Have you pruned your roses yet? This is traditionally the time of year when the winter pruning of roses is accomplished here close to the Gulf Coast. We think of Valentine's Day as our deadline for getting that necessary chore done.

Of course, in the real world of gardening, we are not quite that strict about dates. I pruned my 'Belinda's Dream' roses a few weeks ago, because I was moving them to a new location. And I pruned the 'Monkey Business' rose at the same time. Just because it was there.

I had intended to spend this week getting all the rest of my roses pruned. It would take me all week because there are quite a few of them and I am a slow pruner. But so far I haven't done any of that, simply because it has been cold and wet and dreary and I didn't want to be outside. I'm hoping for more favorable conditions tomorrow.

Pruning a rose, or any plant for that matter, is both a science and an art, and it is, for me, one of the more satisfying activities in the garden. A good job of pruning can grow a better, healthier plant, and, in the case of roses, can produce many more and better blooms.

What do we need to accomplish by pruning? I would maintain that there are at least five goals that we need to achieve.

  1. We need to remove the old dead wood.
  2. We need to remove surplus growth.
  3. If there is diseased or injured wood or parts that failed to develop normally, then they all need to be removed.
  4. We need to give the plant some guidance in the direction, the size and form that we want it to grow.
  5. And we need to encourage bloom.
In doing these five things, we should make sure that our pruners are clean and sharp so that they will cut cleanly and not spread disease and we need to be sure that we cut just above a bud.

Up north, where the roses go dormant, they cut their shrubs back severely in winter, but in our climate, we can be more gentle with our cuts. Most rosarians that I am familiar with recommend cutting back about one-third to one-half of the plant, certainly no more than that.

Since it is cold outside and I am stuck inside, I took a look at some of the rose pruning videos on YouTube. There are not as many as there are cat videos, but there are a lot. Of all the ones I viewed, I liked this fellow's approach and thought it was helpful. 





My loppers and hand pruners are sharpened and my rose gauntlets are all laid out and waiting for me and tomorrow is Wednesday, not Tuesday, so let's hope it will be a good day for rose pruning!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The diva finally sings!

I've been waiting for more than two months for the 'Grand Diva' amaryllis to bloom. She was very slow to start putting out leaves - didn't really begin to do it until after Christmas. And she didn't start to put up a bloom spike until after her sister amaryllises had already bloomed. But finally - finally! - in mid-January, her bloom spikes began to emerge. And now it is February and she's in full bloom. 



Divas perform in their own sweet time. They can't be rushed. But this one has finally delivered.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Winter in Decker Prairie

No, this isn't my garden today. The picture was actually taken at Rocky Mountain National Park when we were there a couple of years ago, but it sort of feels like this today in my garden.

We have had frozen precipitation this morning. Sleet, snow, freezing rain - you name it - although it hasn't actually been cold enough for it to stick except on high places like roofs. There has been a cold wind blowing much of the time which made it unpleasant to be outside for very long.

I've been keeping an eye on my bird feeders, all of which are overrun with hungry birds, mostly American Goldfinches. I have to refill some of the feeders every day or two now to keep the birds happy.

And that is Decker Prairie here at mid-winter. Tonight the temperatures are predicted to be heading down to the 20s degrees Fahrenheit. By Friday, it should be back near the mid-70s again. Pity the poor plants that have to keep adjusting to these changes.

But spring is coming to be followed by the near intolerable heat of summer, and probably sooner than we think. Then we will remember with nostalgia these cold days of late January and February.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Still blooming

As I told you on January Bloom Day, I still don't really have anything blooming in the garden. I do hope to be adding some blooms soon, but in the meantime, I have to be satisfied with the few blossoms that I have indoors.

And those are the same blooms that I had during the holidays - amaryllis and poinsettia.

This poinsettia on my living room hearth has been a real trooper. It has now lost most of its green leaves, but the blooms are still going strong. It has been in bloom in the house for more than six weeks now. I think I've definitely gotten my money's worth out of this plant!

The 'Flamenco Queen' amaryllis is now in its second cycle of bloom. Its bloom, too, is very long lasting and has given a lot of pleasure.

'Cherry Nymph' also has been a real winner for me and is now on its second bloom spike. Isn't it pretty?

'Grand Diva,' on the other hand, has certainly lived up to her name. She has kept us waiting, waiting, waiting... I began to wonder if she was ever going to bloom, but finally, she is putting up two bloom spikes at once. Leave it to a diva to show off!

Here's the second 'Diva' bloom spike, not as tall yet as the first one, but it promises beauty to come.

Here on a cold, cold day in late January, we'll take color and flowers wherever we can find them and I'm very happy to have these few flowers. Still blooming.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Trees in mid-winter

(Here's a post from the archives that celebrates trees, especially trees in the middle of winter. The only thing that has changed among my trees since the original post is that the old apple tree finally had to be cut down because of disease. Now a new one has taken its place and should be here for many years to come.) 

"I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree," the poet Joyce Kilmer wrote just before he went off to serve in World War I, where his life ended. His poem lives on, and no one has ever better described the mystical hold of trees on the human psyche.

At all seasons of the year, trees have a kind of beauty and poetry and majesty of their own. In mid-winter, as at every season, they are the anchors of the garden.



Live oaks, of course, are much the same at all seasons. They never get fully undressed, although they do shed their leaves in spring as new leaves are being produced. In winter, their leaves offer shelter and sanctuary for birds who need a safe haven from predators or from the weather.



The same can be said of the magnolia trees, a favorite roosting place for many birds in winter.



The bottle tree never loses its leaves either - but I haven't noticed any birds roosting here.



The sycamore hangs on to a few of its leaves until they are finally displaced by new leaves in the spring. Every passing breeze brings a shower of sycamore seeds cascading down from the plentiful seed balls. These seeds are favorite winter foods of many birds including the goldfinches who spend hours each day picking them out. 



The old apple tree, too, keeps a few of its leaves even as it prepares to open its swelling buds to the bees in late winter.



The corkscrew willow gives it all up, every leaf, and stands naked against the winter sky and the background of the neighbor's pine trees that tower over everything. The twisted limbs and twigs of the willow give some extra interest to the winter garden. Last summer, I learned that its leaves are hosts to some species of butterflies and moths. I knew there was a reason why I liked it.



This old crape myrtle was planted many years ago by birds, and it still feeds birds in winter with its seeds.



The upright limbs of the Shumard red oak seem to be lifted to the sky in praise and exultation.

None of these trees is old, as trees go. Except for the magnolia and the crape myrtle, we planted them all, but all of them, except for the willow, are now more than twenty years old. They have stood in our yard through drought and flood, heat and cold, and hurricane winds and they have been undaunted. Their leaves have shaken with our laughter, and in times of sadness, they have given me strength and consolation. They've always been there for me to lean on. They are friends to me.

I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as my trees.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - January 2014

Actually, in my garden, it is Garden Bloggers' (non) Bloom Day this month. My garden is literally bloom-free at the moment except for a few pansies which I have shown you before.

Just about ten days ago, Southeast Texas got its share of the polar vortex storm that swept the country. Ours was pretty weak tea compared to what our friends up north received but it was enough to send our low temperatures down to 20-22 degrees Fahrenheit for a couple of nights and that put an end to the few blooms which I still had. The almond verbena, yellow cestrum, Turk's cap, shrimp plant, and various lantanas that had continued to bloom through the winter were all hit hard by the cold and sent into a deep sleep. They should return in the spring, but for now, they look brown and dead.

So, I've truly nothing to show you this month, but I look forward to visiting the gardens of others who do have blooms to share, especially those in the southern hemisphere who are now in the middle of their summer. And I hope that by the middle of February, some blooms and color will have returned to my own garden.

Happy Bloom Day and happy gardening! And as always, thank you to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting us.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Succulents Simplified by Debra Lee Baldwin: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Succulents are described as the plants that drink responsibly. Requiring very little water in order to thrive, they are the perfect kind of plants for areas where water is a scarce commodity and must be conserved. There are likely to be many more such areas in the future. It is good to know that even in these circumstances, there are plants that we can grow successfully.

Debra Lee Baldwin has written a book that is a useful introduction to these trendy, low-maintenance plants. In Succulents Simplified, she gives advice about how to choose the appropriate plant for the site or the indoor project that you have in mind. She gives step-by-step instructions that can help the reader whether she has an acre to plant or is intent on filling only a few windowsill pots.

I enjoy succulents and have several pots around the house as well as a few in the garden. Over the years, I have learned through bitter experience that the worst thing you can do to these plants is to overwater them. I admit I have killed more than a handful in this way. Perhaps if I had had Baldwin's book to guide me, I might have been a better and more successful succulent gardener. Well, I guess I have no excuse in the future, do I?

I think the great appeal of succulents lies in their sculptural and geometric shapes. These are forms that blend well with modern design, but, in fact, they can accent almost any style, regardless of what your individual preference might be. I suspect that succulents, which are hot right now, will become even hotter in the future as more people come to realize just how easy and care-free they are.

For the crafty gardener, a category that doesn't really include me, Baldwin includes information and instructions for several projects. Things like turning a cake-stand into a planter/centerpiece for succulents. She also shows how to make vertical gardens with the plants or to create a topiary sphere. Personally, I prefer a more naturalistic look, letting plants grow naturally into their own space, but to each his/her own.

Baldwin's easy-to-follow text is illustrated with some beautiful photographs of these versatile plants. Most of the photographs were taken by her. The credits for other pictures appear in the back of the book.

She gives us a list of her 100 favorite plant picks for all uses and she explains how to care for them and keep them fat and healthy regardless of where you live. She is obviously well-versed on the subject and writes from a wealth of experience. Also, her enthusiasm for succulents is contagious and the humor with which she writes helps to convey that contagion.

This was a fun and interesting book to read and from it, I picked up several ideas for including succulents in my landscape and I am looking forward to getting to work on that. I am especially excited about the diverse palette of colors that are available and that were shown throughout the book through the remarkable photography.

If you have an interest in succulents, this might just be the book to help you get started. And if you don't have that interest, it might be the book to give it to you!

(A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)



Saturday, January 4, 2014

This week in the garden - #85

Finally, this week we got the "killing frost" that we had been anticipating. Our low temperatures got into the 20s F. and all the plants in the garden that can be affected by frost are now in a deep winter's sleep. It's time to begin the clean-up and time to move those sleeping plants that are poorly sited and need to be in a different location.

Plants like my 'Montrose Purple' vitex that is presently living in the shade of my red oak tree. It grows in a misshapen form because it needs more sun. It would be happier, in fact, in full sun, so, I want to move it to a new location. But it is a big shrub and I'll need help with the project. I do want to save the vitex if I can. Assuming that I am able to secure the assistance I need, I hope that I can move that unhappy plant to a spot where it will be more comfortable - maybe next week.

*~*~*~*

Earlier this week, before the freeze came, I photographed this little butterfly in my garden.

It is a Sleepy Orange Sulphur butterfly. I don't often see them in my yard, but in the autumn of 2012, when we visited Big Bend National Park, these butterflies were everywhere. I love that name - Sleepy Orange.

*~*~*~*

There's not much going on in the garden with the plants at the moment, but it is one of the most active times of the year for the avian visitors to the garden. I keep my bird feeders well stocked and they are almost always busy with backyard birds like these.

 Carolina Chickadee


 Northern Cardinal


Pine Warbler

Thank goodness we have our feathered companions and the occasional butterfly to brighten our otherwise dull gray days of winter.