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

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A notable garden visitor

While putting in some red cabbage plants in a bed in the veggie garden on Tuesday morning, September 28, I stood up to relieve my aching back and wipe my sweaty brow and looked around me. And saw my first Monarch butterfly of the autumn in my yard.

I was, of course, in gardening mode, not photography mode, so there was no camera around to record the event. I could only stand and watch and admire, and record the event in my mind's eye.

She (I always think of Monarchs as "she" unless proved otherwise) was flitting about a bed that contained hamelia, buddleia, lantana, butterfly weed, and yellow cestrum. She stopped to sip from each plant in turn. Her wings were worn and faded. I wondered how far they had carried her.

As I watched, she left the first bed and headed over to some esperanza that grows by the fence. She settled down to feed and I wished that she might linger with me for a while.

But a butterfly's life is brief. She had no time to waste. In a few minutes, as if she had heard some distant call, she rose from the shrub on her tattered wings and headed south once again. I last saw her as she crossed the yard of my next door neighbor and headed across the next yard, her wings beating strongly and with purpose.

When I thought about it later, I thought how appropriate it was that the last plant from which she fed in my yard was esperanza. Hope.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Top 10 Rookie Gardening Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)"

In the middle of my daily online reading recently, I came across this title,"Top 10 Rookie Gardening Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)" by Colleen Vanderlinden. Well, of course, I had to read that!

As I started reading Ms. Vanderlinden's list, I thought, "This woman must have been looking over my shoulder!" By the time I finished the list, I knew for sure that she had written the unauthorized and unexpurgated biography of my life as a gardener. Yes, she told all my dirty little secrets.

The dirtiest of my secrets though is that these aren't just rookie mistakes with me. I keep making them over and over again.

Some rookies in that other game that I love, baseball, just never learn that they can't hit that low and outside slider. They'll keep right on swinging at it until they are finally sent back to the minor leagues for "seasoning." In gardening, there are no general managers to send me down to the minors, but Mother Nature certainly tells me, "You're out!" often enough. But you, gentle reader, are better than that. You don't have to make these mistakes that I seem doomed to repeat. Here's how to avoid them.

1. Clueless watering: I've drowned so many plants in my life as a gardener that I really should probably be declared a mass murderer. On the other hand, I've let many die of thirst, although not as many, I think, as I've drowned. Over/underwatering is so easy to avoid that there really is no excuse for doing it. First of all, we should make the effort to know our plant's requirements, whether it likes to dry out between waterings or stay consistently moist or have its feet wet, and secondly, what could be easier than sticking a finger in the soil to see if it is wet? If it is dry, then it is probably time to water.

2. Wrong plant, wrong place: Mea culpa! I confess! Oh, how many times have I done this in my gardening career? Planted a shade-loving plant in the sun or a plant that requires full sun in the shade of an oak tree. Stuck a plant that needs a protected southern exposure on the north side of the house or a plant that needs only gentle morning light where it will get the full brunt of the harsh afternoon sun. Yes, I have done it not once but many times. And all it would require to avoid this mistake is reading the plant tag, or, if there is no tag, doing a little research to find out what the plant needs to thrive. Successful gardeners know that the most important thing you can do for a plant is to give it the conditions that it likes and not try to force it into a situation where it is uncomfortable. Stressed plants will not perform well for you. Happy plants will.

3. Not giving plants enough space: You've got this big, empty bed to fill and you're looking at some dinky little quart or gallon plants and thinking to yourself that your space is going to look very bare. And so you buy more plants and you shove them all in close together. But plants grow! And some of them grow very large and very fast. Once again, look at the plant label and believe what it says about how much space the plant requires. Give it the room that it needs and then be patient. Truthfully, patience is probably the last lesson that any gardener learns. And the hardest.

4. Not knowing your zone: It is important to know your USDA Hardiness Zone and to believe what the charts tell you about temperature ranges of that zone. Many area gardeners who had disregarded that information in their planting had some very sad experiences last winter, when, for the first time in a long time, we actually had a winter. Read the plant label and compare it to your known hardiness zone and if it says the plant can only survive in zone 9 or higher, don't plant it if you are in zone 8.

5. Haphazard fertilizing: Some of us have this crazy idea that if a little is good then a lot must be better. Not true - especially when it comes to fertilizers. You can overdo it even with organic fertilizers, and giving the plant more than it needs is not unlike giving a child more food than it needs. You may end up with an obese and unhealthy child or a stressed and unhealthy plant. And stressed plants send out signals that are easily interpreted by insects looking for a meal. They say, "Come and eat me!" and the munchers will not need a second invitation.

6. Not mulching: Ah, mulch, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. You discourage weeds and keep the root zone cooler. You reduce evaporation and add nutrients to the soil. Few things are more important to plants in our climate than a good organic mulch of leaves or grass clippings or wood chips. (I like the native cedar mulch myself.) And besides all the good things it does for our plants, it makes the beds look neater and more attractive.

7. Indifferent soil preparation: It all begins with the soil, no matter what you are growing. One of the smartest things you can do is to contact your County Extension Office for a soil test kit. Follow the directions, collect your soil and send it in for analysis. Soon you will know if your soil is deficient in some nutrients and you can make the necessary amendments. Before you plant, you'll want to thoroughly loosen the soil and add plenty of organic material such as compost or well-rotted manure. This is where your plant's roots will be growing and roots make the plant. But soil makes the roots.

8. Sun/shade fairy tales: This relates back to #2. Don't stick a plant that needs sun in the shade or a plant that needs shade in the sun. You'll only stress the plant and make it more prone to disease, as well as easy prey for insect pests.

9. Not knowing your site: Even in a small backyard garden, there are microclimates and special circumstances that require consideration when you are planning what and where to plant. You may have a spot that collects water when it rains. You wouldn't want to put your xeric plants there. Or you may have a location that is particularly exposed to wind. You shouldn't plant something with tender, easily bruised leaves in such a spot. Knowing the eccentricities of your site and planning and planting accordingly can save you a lot of annoyance and frustration and can save a lot of innocent plants' lives.

10. Listening to "experts": This may seem counterintuitive, but no one can know your garden as well as you do. You are the one who lives there, the one who puts your hands in the soil, the one who watches the shadows move across the yard each day, the one who sees where the rain collects and how it flows through your yard. There are many "experts" out there and they have a lot of valuable information and advice to give. But take it all with a grain of salt. They don't know your yard like you do. In your garden, YOU are the expert.

Now you know all the terrible, horrible, awful, no-good mistakes that I made as a rookie gardener - and every year since. You can avoid them and be a successful gardener. What it really takes, chiefly, is common sense (which, in fact, is not very common) and reading the plant labels.

Happy gardening!

Friday, September 24, 2010

A gardener's week - #8

This week I have mainly worked in the veggie garden, trying to bring order out of chaos. I've pulled the weeds from several beds and readied them for planting and actually got a couple of them planted. I went by Arbor Gate on Monday and picked up some plants, including mesclun mix plants and broccoli for the veggie garden, as well as a few plants for the renovation I'm doing on my front yard beds. (More to come on that at a later date.)

I got the mesclun and broccoli planted and weeded the beds that still have plants from spring in them and the tomatoes that I planted last month. The only things from spring that are still producing are the eggplants and peppers.

The eggplant is going wild right now! It had stopped producing for a few weeks during the hottest part of summer but now it is full of new fruits. In short order, we'll have eggplant parmigiana again!

I also had a bed ready to plant potatoes, but I took the day off from gardening today and went birding at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. Time enough to think about planting potatoes tomorrow.

Other than vegetable gardening, the main attractions in my garden this week have been my hibiscus bloomers. All the plants are in bloom except for one.

This is my non-bloomer that was killed back to the roots during winter and took a very, very long time coming back in the spring. It looks healthy now but shows no signs of producing buds. It still has about two-and-a-half months before frost so maybe it will yet give me some blooms.

This is another plant from last year that died back to the roots in winter but it came back quickly in spring and has bloomed profusely all summer long. The only thing is, the blossom is different. Last year it was a singleton - now it's this very pretty double. It is my mystery hibiscus.

I learned last year that I actually quite like hibiscus. Some of the blossoms on these plants can be quite complicated and fantastical, but, actually, I'm really partial to the clean-cut single blossoms. So I added three of them this year.

This pretty orange one is called 'Carolina Breeze.'

My new sunny yellow one is called 'Sunset Yellow.' At least that was the name that was on the plant tag when I bought it, but frankly the blossom doesn't look quite like the picture. Never mind, I like it anyway.

The third new one features a pink blossom with a red eye and it is called 'Candy Wind.'

Then, of course, there is my old stand-by 'Texas Star' that has really outdone itself with blooms continuously since spring.

And, in other parts of the garden...

I haven't seen the tiny baby turtle this week, but this guy who turned up earlier this summer has been back for his share of the kibble on the back porch.

The milkweed is attracting any butterflies that wander by but also these red milkweed bugs. Notice that they feature the bright colors to warn predators that they taste bad, just like the Monarch butterflies and...

...their cousins, the Queens. I've had a pair of these beauties in my yard this week and they've spent a lot of time around the milkweed. I hope they are laying some eggs there.

Still no Monarchs though. The migration is well under way now. They should be arriving soon.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A remarkable confluence of events

As a confirmed moon watcher, I was out to watch the rise of the Harvest Moon over my backyard last night. It was a beautiful night with only a few wispy clouds and the "Queen of the Night" ruled over all in her matchless beauty.

The Harvest Moon as seen over my yard last night.

The Harvest Moon, as you probably know, is the full moon which occurs closest to the autumnal equinox. Well, you can't get much closer than having it come on the actual day of the autumnal equinox.

Autumn arrived quietly enough last night at 10:09, our time, and the full moon was already there to greet it. This unusual occurrence of the Harvest Moon and autumnal equinox coming on the same day had not happened since September 23, 1991, and it will not happen again until 2029. This particular "Super Harvest Moon" was made even more special for sky watchers because Jupiter and Uranus were in alignment, as well.

The Harvest Moon got its name because, in the days before electric lights and mechanized farm equipment with their own light sources, this moon was very important to farmers who were able to continue their fall harvesting activities into the night aided by its light.

Though it may not be needed for harvesting any more, some of us like to look at our gardens by its light, a light which is much kinder than the sun's. By moonlight, even my garden is beautiful, and as I walked the path through my vegetable garden last night, gazing at the new plants I had installed there this week, those little plants looked very perky and happy and I could go to my bed and dream blissful dreams of harvests to come.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A gardener's week - #7

The early part of my week was spent in College Station absorbing as much information as I could from my Landscape Design course. This is a four part study course and this week's session was the first of the four, but the parts can be taken in any order.

The course was absolutely packed with information which just made me realize how ignorant I am on the subject. There were lectures on the historical roots of landscape design and on public landscape architecture and design. And there was a highly entertaining and thought-provoking lecture by Dr. David Creech of SFA and Mast Arboretum in Nacogdoches about his work in China. Apparently, the Chinese are very advanced in their horticultural techniques.

But the greater part of the course dealt with planning and designing the private home garden and, of course, that is what I was there for.

Dr. William Welch of Texas A&M, Dr. Neil Odenwald of L.S.U., and Alan King, ASLA, a professional landscape designer in private practice in the Brazos Valley all spoke to us about and showed us examples of home landscape design.

I learned from Dr. Odenwald that certain design principles are basic to the creation of a landscape:

1. Proportion and scale: Proportion refers to the general relationship among parts. Scale refers to size as related to the human figure.
2. Balance: Gives design stability - actual and visual.
3. Dominance: A dominant idea helps create focus and unity in a design.
4. Rhythm: Relates to movement or perceived movement.
5. Contrast: The addition of components that are in opposition to one another adds vitality to a landscape.

In addition, these design elements are the building blocks of our designs:

1. Line: The edge of form. It provides definition and direction to a design.
2. Form: Physical mass. It is three-dimensional while line is two-dimensional.
3. Texture: The surface qualities and relationship among sizes. Texture is comprised of both tactile and visual sensations.
4. Color: Results from how light is either being absorbed or reflected.

Dr. Oldenwald showed us many visual examples of these principles and elements and invited us to visit his website, OnlinePlantGuide.com to see more than 15,000 illustrative images.

Well, as you can imagine, by the end of the course, I was reeling with all the facts and ideas I had tried to absorb, and I headed home to try to apply them all.

Have you ever noticed that regardless of the weather conditions, weeds are going to thrive? I'll bet you have and so have I, but I was again reminded of the fact when I got home. No rain, but the weeds had completely taken over and I had one big mess! So I've spent the rest of the week trying to repair that mess.

I did find one happy surprise when I got home. My fellow blogger, UrsulaAndres, had sent me some white Texas Star hibiscus seed. It's a plant I've been wishing for and now, thanks to Ursula, maybe I'll have some of those lovely white blooms in 2011. Or maybe 2012.

One disappointment I felt as I was pulling weeds this week was that there just don't seem to be as many butterflies in my yard as I'm used to seeing at this time of year. There are a few Gulf Fritillaries around and some of their larvae are munching on my passion vine now and, occasionally, I see a swallowtail of one kind or another. But overall, the population - except for Sulphurs - seems down. Also, I've yet to see a Monarch butterfly in my yard since early summer. If ever they do turn up here, thanks to another blogger friend, Butterhummer, I have plenty of butterfly weed to offer them. I am longing to see those orange and black beauties in my yard once again.

We can now count on the fingers of one hand the number of days until autumn, that favorite season of the year for many of us, begins. Just a month ago, it seemed this time would never arrive.

The Southern magnolia seeds are ripening and changing color. That means that autumn is almost here!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September, 2010

I was away from my garden for a few days and came home to find that not much had changed - except for a couple of nice surprises that I'll show you later.

The garden, like the weather, is still hot, humid, and dry. We did actually get a couple of inches of rain last week which helped immensely, but the earth was so dry that within two or three days you could hardly tell it had rained. You can start those autumn rains any time now, Mother Nature!

It seems only yesterday that I was showing you my blooms on August Bloom Day and, quite honestly, I don't have much that is different to show you this month, but come along and I'll give you an abbreviated tour.

At this time of year, in my garden it is all about...

...the hummingbirds who are at the peak of their fall migration, and...

...the butterflies who are at the peak of their population numbers.

The Hamelia patens shrubs are in full bloom now, just in time to welcome those hungry hummers.

And so are all the flame acanthus shrubs, the hummers' favorite. (The bottle tree blooming in the background doesn't feed anything except my soul.)

The cypress vine on the veggie garden fence is full of its tiny red blooms. These are favorites of butterflies, especially the little skippers.

The porterweed still offers a few blossoms to passing hummers and butterflies as well.

I don't have as many Tithonia, Mexican sunflower, blossoms as I do in most years, but the few that are still blooming are butterfly magnets. Hummingbirds like them, too.

Several varieties of blue salvias bloom throughout the garden. This one is next to a Dutchman's pipe vine that was planted this year, but isn't in bloom just now.

The old Mexican bush sage is putting on its annual show.

The purple of this 'Montrose Purple' vitex hardly even makes an impact against the brilliant blue of the September sky, but the butterflies still manage to find it.

The dwarf jatropha gets its share of butterfly traffic, too.

The 'Radsunny' Knockout roses have bloomed non-stop for me since early spring and have done so almost without care and very little extra water. They have been real winners in my garden.

This was one of the pleasant surprises I got in my garden this morning. The 'Rouge Cardinal' clematis, which bloomed profusely and for a long period in the spring, is now blooming again, after resting for most of the summer.

My second happy surprise was the Clerodendrum thomsoniae, 'Glory Bower Bleeding Heart' vine. The blossoms haven't opened to reveal the bright red "bleeding hearts" but I think they are just as lovely at this stage.

Thank you for visiting my garden this month. Don't forget to drop by for a visit with Carol of May Blooms Gardens, our hostess for this monthly blog event.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A gardener's week - #6

Looking around the garden this week, I see the mellow yellows of September.

Yellow bells are ringing...

...joined by the creamy yellow trumpet of the angels.

Yellow cestrum, an eternal bloomer.

The yellows of 'Butter and Cream' lantana.

A dainty yellow calibrochoa.

Yellow roses, 'Graham Thomas.'

The creamy leaves of the variegated Turk's cap.

The yellow centers of delicate Blackfoot daisy blossoms.

Yellow bulbine.

Sunny yellow hibiscus blossoms.

Yellow butterfly weed.

And yellow butterflies.

The variegated leaves of the 'Bengal Tiger' canna.

And a benevolent yellow sun watching over it all.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bittersweet September

My wish that the rains of autumn would begin a bit early this year seems to have been granted, at least for the moment. We got a bit of rain yesterday afternoon and it started again at mid-morning today and is continuing this afternoon. All I can say to that is, "Welcome, welcome rain!" No watering chores for yours truly for a few days!

But there are plenty of other chores to keep the gardener busy this month. September finds us here in Southeast Texas somewhat betwixt and between. Summer is ending and fall is just on the horizon but not quite here yet. We're still going to have to endure lot of hot, humid days before the weather turns more dependably cool. Still, this is a good time of year to pause, take a breath and look around to see what has worked this year in the garden and what hasn't. Moreover, it is a time to make plans to correct those things that didn't work.

Like most gardeners, I think, when I look at my garden, I tend to focus more on the failures than the successes. I tend to see the browning leaves of the Viburnum tinus plants that I planted in the spring, rathering than the flourishing green of Viburnum obovatum (Walter's viburnum) and the constantly wilting and having-to-be-babied Hydrangea macrophylla rather than the sturdy and uncomplaining oak-leaf hydrangea. (Well, those plants that aren't doing well may not be failures exactly. They may just be in the wrong spot - not an uncommon occurrence in my garden.)

Looking back over the year so far, I will grudgingly admit that some things did do well for me. The vegetable garden for the most part was a big success. The only things that really didn't do at all well were the tomatoes, mostly, I think, because I got them planted too late and they just didn't have time to grow sufficiently before they got hit by summer's heat. I also had an abundance of blueberries, a couple of quarts of which are still in my freezer waiting to be made into blueberry muffins, and the strawberries produced well for me, too.

In the backyard, where most of my shrubs and perennials are well established, things have done well. Some of the plants that I had given up for dead after winter, like the 'Pride of Barbados', the bauhinia, and the dwarf jatropha, did come back eventually. Even my old split-leaf philodendron that looked deader than a doornail in late spring eventually woke up and has grown to about two-thirds of its former size. The backyard needs some clean-up and maybe a couple of new planting beds, but it doesn't really concern me so much. No, it's that pesky front yard that gives me heartburn and keeps me awake at night.

The front yard, of course, was my big project last year, and a year ago I was pretty happy with it. It was lush and full of blooms and gave the effect that I had been hoping for. But then winter came along and I realized my big mistake - I hadn't planned for four-season interest, and, when you are talking about the garden that people see from the road as they pass by, you really need four-season interest. The plants I had planted were beautiful in summer and fall, but almost none of them were evergreen, so the beds looked bare and dead in winter.

Back to the drawing board.

In the spring, I moved a lot of the plants that had been in the front yard to the back, and I evaluated what was left. I planted a few new things like the viburnums and some temporary things just to provide color, but I decided to wait until the fall to do any major work. Well, fall is almost here. What now?

On days like today, I spend a lot of time looking over my gardening books. The one I'm studying today is Howard Garrett's Plants for Houston and the Gulf Coast. (Howard wouldn't steer me wrong, would he?)

And next week, I'll be in College Station attending a landscape design course. I hope to come home brimming with new ideas about how to proceed.

September is the time for all this. There are regrets for past mistakes, but also realization that I have learned from them. And there is hope that my gardening efforts will be more successful in the future. Bittersweet September gives me that hope.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A gardener's week - #5

The theme of this week's recap was going to be "another week without rain" but then we got a five-minute shower early this morning, just enough to wet the driveway and spoil my narrative.

'Katie' ruellia after the rain.

I remember that when the weather didn't go to suit him, my dad, a farmer, used to say that we hadn't "paid the preacher enough." That never made much sense to me as a child. What did the preacher have to do with it? Anyway, didn't the Bible say that rain fell on the just and the unjust? For the past several weeks, though, I haven't even gotten my "unjust" portion, so maybe I need to resort to drastic measures and "pay the preacher."

In the meantime, it's been another week of dragging the hoses around. This morning's little shower didn't do much to help, but it did briefly freshen the plants.

This 'Chi Chi' ruellia puts on a pretty pink display in the early morning, but by mid-afternoon the blossoms are gone. It's not one of my favorite plants and I'm not fond of where it is located. I'll probably be moving it...or something...this fall.

The blue plumbago is finally beginning to put on a nice show.

Next to the garage door, the variegated potato vine is still sending out these dainty blooms.

In the side yard, 'Graham Thomas' is reminding me of why he is my favorite yellow rose. If only he weren't such a leggy plant, he'd be perfect.

And, in other parts of the yard this week...

Little Sammy, the baby box turtle that I recently told you about, continues to visit the back porch on a regular basis, looking for handouts. His mama taught him well!

Telling the sex of a box turtle is a chancy thing, but based on the shape of the shell (rather flat on top), I think Little Sammy is a male turtle. No matter - "Sammy" works for male or female.

When I'm not outside watering plants or watching turtles, I'm often in my office/study working at my desk. If I turn my head to the left...

I can look out my window and continue to keep an eye on the action in the yard. This hummingbird feeder hangs just a few feet outside the window and 20 feet or so beyond that is the front yard post bird feeder that always has birds and/or squirrels around it. Plenty of entertainment for me.

Last week, a juvenile male hummingbird was in charge of this feeder, but this week an adult female has taken over. I think the young male, as well as the adult male who battled him for possession of the feeder, have moved on.

She's been able to enjoy her meals without much competition these last few days.

Sometimes when I look toward the hummingbird feeder, it's not a hummingbird that I see.

There are lots of young anoles and frogs and toads in the area of the feeder. Here a young anole climbs the post and...

...then he hops onto the feeder and starts drinking the nectar! I've seen other reports of this happening, but this is the first time I have observed it in my yard. Who says anoles aren't clever?

Although I still can't look forward to much chance of rain for the weekend, at least it looks like the temperatures and the humidity might be bearable. That would make for a nice holiday weekend.

I hope your holiday weekend is relaxing and filled with happy things.