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

Friday, October 29, 2010

A gardener's week - #13

Most of my week in the garden was spent trying to keep my hat from flying off. Boy, was it windy! Finally, I solved the problem by just taking the hat off and letting the hair fly.

This week we (and when I say "we", I mean Bob) took down the bottle tree. Long-time readers may remember that we had made the trunk of the tree from a cedar tree in our backyard that had been damaged by Hurricane Ike. I had a sentimental attachment to that tree because I had dug it at my parents' home in Mississippi, but in the end, it just wasn't working for me as a bottle tree. So, down it came. I've purchased a metal frame to hold my bottles but I don't have it installed yet. Next week, maybe.

In apite of all the wind which you would think would make life difficult for them, this has been the week of butterflies in my yard. A veritable butterfly convention has been going on all week.

It might have something to do with the fact that the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) are in full and glorious bloom just now and that always draws the butterflies. It was not at all unusual to see multiple butterflies on one bloom, particularly Gulf Fritillaries who seem expecially fond of these sunflowers.

Occasionally, I would see more than one species of butterfly sharing a blossom, like this Gulf Fritillary and Brazilian Skipper.

But two or three of the same species were more common.

Sulphurs of many kinds were too numerous to count.

This (I think) is the Large Orange Sulphur.

And this is the very common Cloudless Sulphur. I've noticed that all of the sulphurs show a decided preference in their feeding for tubular flowers like this flame acanthus. I see them regularly on these flowers as well as Turk's cap, Hamelia patens, Cigar plant (Cuphea), and cannas, but not so much on daisy-like flowers like the Mexican sunflowers.

The Queens certainly favor the sunflowers.

I've had many, many Queens in my garden this fall, which is unusual. Normally, they have been rather uncommon here. Maybe their presence is Mother Nature's way of compensating me for my lack of Monarchs.

Many of the butterflies that I saw this week looked like they had been through a war, like this tattered Pipe-Vine Swallowtail feeding on blue plumbago.

None looked worse than this poor Red Admiral who had lost about half his wings and yet was still flying briskly and enjoying sunning himself on a post.

With his wings open, you can see even more clearly the damage that has been done to him. Never let it be thought that the life of a butterfly is all sunshine and nectar.

Even this tiny Gray Hairstreak has had a bite taken out of his hindwing.

Again, open wings show his injuries more starkly.

But not everybody looked beat up.

This Spicebush Swallowtail looked pristine and perfect in every way, as if he had just stepped out of his chrysalis.

With wings in ventral position, you can see the two parallel rows of orange dots on the wings that identify him as a Spicebush.

There was competition for a prime spot on the blossoms, and it wasn't just among the butterflies.

Bumblebees like these flowers, too.

The high point of my day of butterfly watching came near the end of the day.

Yes, that really is a Monarch! In fact, it was the second Monarch I had seen this day. The other one had flown over my house and didn't stop, as far as I know. But this guy seemed inclined to stick around for awhile. I know he's a guy because of those two enlarged black dots on one of the black veins on his hindwing. Those are scent patches which male Monarchs and Queens have but the females do not have. So, no eggs from him, but maybe he had a girlfriend hiding in the bushes.

You might think that I took a picture of every single butterfly in the yard, but there were a few that I missed. There were also Long-tailed Skippers here. In fact, there were probably many kinds of skippers that I missed. And I know there was at least one Common Buckeye and one Giant Swallowtail. Like I said at the beginning, it was a veritable butterfly convention. A sight to warm the cockles of a habitat gardener's heart!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


What does ENSO mean to you? It sounds like it might be one of those acronyms beloved by the Pentagon or Homeland Security, doesn't it? It could stand for something like Enhanced National Security Options.

In fact though, ENSO stands for El Nino (La Nina) Southern Oscillation and it refers to a climate pattern that occurs across the tropical Pacific Ocean on a regular basis. It comes around on average every five years.

The variation that occurs in the surface temperature of the tropical eastern Pacific is known either as "El Nino" (warming) or "La Nina" (cooling). At the same time, the air surface pressure in the tropical western Pacific is known as the "Southern Oscillation." The two phenomena together create ENSO, and we need to understand ENSO because its effect on our weather is enormous, and as gardeners, we flourish or perish with the weather.

ENSO's effects are complicated and it affects weather right around the world, but let's try to at least understand what it does to us here in the southern part of North America.

During an El Nino period, winters in northeast Mexico and the southeast United States are cooler and wetter than average. It will not surprise you to learn that we were under the influence of El Nino last winter.

El Nino also tends to surpress hurricane activity which probably contributed to the fact that the 2009 hurricane season was the least active in twelve years. That El Nino period lasted through May 2010. Then La Nina took over.

For us, La Nina has mostly the opposite effect of El Nino. In North America, this means that the North Midwest, the Northern Rockies, Northern California, and the Pacific Northwest's southern and eastern regions all have above-average precipitation during La Nina, while right across the southern part of the continent - and that means us - below-average precipitation prevails. Also, in the southern part of the continent, warmer winters usually occur during La Nina.

Looking at the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center website today, I learned that the projection for November, December and January calls for above-average temperatures for our region and a continuation of below-median precipitation. If this is correct, we cannot look for an early end to our drought.

In fact, the NWS predicts that the La Nina period, with its dry conditions for the southern part of the country, will continue to hold sway until at least May of next year. Projecting beyond May is less reliable, they admit, but they believe that La Nina may be ending in the spring.

In my yard, we have experienced very little rain since July and the NWS certainly does not offer me any hope of real relief anytime soon. It looks like I might as well get used to moving sprinklers and hauling hoses around for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, if their predictions are correct, I might not be losing any plants to cold weather this winter, if only I can keep from losing them to dessication.

On the other hand, I've been seeing lots of woolly-bears lately and I have to tell you, they are all dark. Just like they were last fall when they predicted a cold winter for us. Who will be right this year - the scientists or the caterpillars?

Friday, October 22, 2010

A gardener's week - #12

I confess I am not just a lazy gardener but a lazy photographer, too. When I go into my garden to take pictures of flowers or foliage, I most often just use whatever lens happens to be on the camera at the time. That is usually one of the zoom lenses that I use for trying to capture butterfly or bird images, not really the optimum choice for flower photography.

This week, though, I decided to exert myself a bit and go macro. I put the macro lens on the camera and went out to take a really close-up look at what was going on in my garden. The pictures that I've posted here the last couple of days were part of the result of that effort. Here are some more up close and personal images from my garden this week.

Yellow cestrum.

Tradescantia pallida 'Purple Heart'.

Rosa 'Red Cascade'.

Autumn sage and blue mistflower.

'Butter and Cream' lantana.

Autumn sage.

Bud from 'Belinda's Dream' rose.

Prairie asters.


Flowers of bronze fennel.


Dwarf jatropha.

Yellow bells (Tecoma stans) with bumblebee.

Salvia 'Otahal'.

Bud of 'Graham Thomas' rose.

Species canna.

Unknown purple verbena.

Butterfly weed.

'Caldwell Pink' polyantha antique rose.

Purple oxalis.

Floribunda rosa 'Monkey Business'.

Gulf Fritillary on Turk's cap 'Big Momma' bloom.

'Radazz' Knockout rose.


Pink Knockout rose.

Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).


'Texas Star' hibiscus, still blooming after all these months!

It's amazing what one can find when one looks really closely at the garden. I may have to try this again.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The white garden

Most gardeners have probably heard of Sissinghurst, the castle and the gardens in Kent in the United Kingdom. The gardens were planned and established in the 1930s and later by the poet and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, diplomat Harold Nicolson. The grounds were arranged into distinct garden rooms with different themes. Perhaps the most popular of these is the White Garden.

Imagine establishing a garden with such a limited palette. All the flowers must be white. The only other color is the green of the foliage. How would you create interest in such a garden and keep it from being boring?

Texture is certainly one answer. Different types of foliage and flowers, delicate and fernlike to large and stiff, different shapes and sizes in plants and even different "shades" of white all can create a feeling of variety and excitement and keep the eye moving to different spots around the garden. Of course, it helps if you are Vita Sackville-West and you REALLY know what you are doing.

But even in a garden that isn't all white, white can be an important accent, a focal point to draw the eye. I started thinking about the whites in my garden and decided to take the camera out and see what I could find.

This loropetalum 'Emerald Snow' seems a bit confused. Its normal bloom time is late winter and spring, but here in the middle of autumn it is putting out a few blossoms. It would definitely fit in a white garden.

As would the little Blackfoot daisies.

'Hot Lips' salvia probably wouldn't be allowed admittance to the white garden. After all, her blooms start out cherry red and slowly turn white. Only at the end of their bloom cycle are they entirely white.

'Bleeding Heart' clerodendrum is just the opposite. The blossoms start out pure white but then slowly open up to reveal the red "bleeding heart". Vita probably wouldn't have permitted it in her white garden.

White vincas might make the cut. I haven't planted vincas in my garden in years, but long ago I did and every year since they have reseeded, sometimes in very unexpected places in the garden.

'Ducher' rose certainly passes muster for a white garden. I added this one to my garden this spring and it has spent all summer and fall in a big pot. Sometime this winter I have to identify a planting bed for it. It has bloomed well even in the pot, but I know it will be much happier in a bed where it can stretch its roots.

Earlier in the year, I would have been able to find a lot more white around the garden - crinums, spider lilies, some daylilies that are creamy white, even a white kalanchoe - but this week my whites are few. However, looking for them gave me pause to think about what it would be like to have a white garden or to have different "rooms" in my garden with different themes.

This is hardly an original thought. I know many accomplished gardeners create garden rooms. It's just a germ of an idea floating around in the empty space between my ears at the moment, but maybe that's the way Vita's White Garden started, too.