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

Monday, January 31, 2011

Here's a quickie for you

Just a very quick post as I'm on the way out the door to give you a link to a blog that I read just about every day, "Garden Rant."

Today's ranter is Susan Harris who is a gardener after my own heart because she appreciates common plants. Her specific topic is 'Knockout' roses. Read this and see if you agree or disagree.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Thinking of growing veggies for the first time?

For those who may be thinking of starting a vegetable garden for the first time, here is a post that I did on that subject just about a year ago. It gives some very basic information for beginners. Good luck!

Vegetables are suddenly the biggest thing going in the world of gardening. The last year has spotlighted the reemergence of the "Victory Garden" as a factor in American life. This was helped along, of course, by the First Lady's efforts to establish a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, but there were many other factors that contributed to its renewed popularity.

Chief among these may have been an economy that made it important for people to save money where they could and growing some of what you eat can certainly help with that. Also, there is the heightened awareness of the need to eat healthier and, again, vegetables are a big part of any healthy-eating plan.

Growing vegetables is a relatively easy kind of gardening, but for someone who has never done it, the prospect can be a bit daunting. The National Gardening Association suggests there are five rules that can help the uninitiated get started.

1. Site: Choose a site that is close to your house or to a walkway so that it will be convenient for you to visit your garden every day. Tucking a vegetable garden away in some hidden corner of your yard is a blueprint for failure. Such a garden is too easily overlooked and forgotten. A vegetable garden needs to be weeded, watered and harvested on a regular basis and convenient placement makes that much easier. Related to the selection of a site is the requirement to have that site close to a water source to make the needed watering easier.

2. Sun: Also related to site selection, you will need to make sure that your site gets 3-6 hours of sun daily, and preferably closer to the upper end of that time range. You need to take into consideration any shade that may be cast by buildings and other structures and by trees.

3. Soil: Actually, this probably should be listed first, because everything springs from the quality of the soil. A healthy soil with plenty of organic matter incorporated and proper drainage is absolutely essential to growing a successful vegetable garden.

4. Selection: This may seem self-evident, but grow what you like to eat. If you don't like turnips or broccoli, don't try to grow those crops. Grow carrots and snow peas instead - that is, if you like carrots and snow peas. Growing things that you enjoy eating will just make your gardening a much more rewarding experience. It also helps to grow a variety of flowers and herbs along with your vegetables. Mixing them all together in the garden makes for a more beautiful garden and will make time spent there more pleasant. Also, it can be helpful in controlling garden pests.

5. Size: Finally - and, again, this could really be number 1 - start small. Planting more than you have the time and energy to take care of is a formula for frustration and failure. Remember, you can always make your garden bigger if you find that you have underestimated. You can even grow many vegetables in containers, if you live in an apartment or your space is limited. Just get the biggest containers that you can manage. Your vegetables will appreciate the room to stretch.

There are few things that are more satisfying in gardening than growing food for yourself and your family. It really is true that nothing tastes better than a vegetable you have grown yourself.

Here at mid-winter is a good time to start planning your veggie garden. The weather is still too inclement to do very much outside, but some preliminary planning can make everything go a lot smoother when you finally can get outside to get your garden started. That time will arrive sooner than you think, so time to get planning so that then you can get planting!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

The case of the forgetful blogger

One day last week we headed down to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to visit their permanent exhibits and the Cockrell Butterfly Center. I never get tired of their dinosaurs and beautiful shells and gems, as well as the exhibits depicting the history of pre-Columbian America and the amazing animals of Africa. I could spend a day just looking at all that.

This time, as an added attraction, there was a wonderful exhibit of photographs from Big Bend, which just made me want to jump in the car and head west. But really, the main reason I wanted to go at mid-winter was to visit the butterfly center.

My yard is a bit butterfly-challenged at the moment. I see the occasional Sulphur or Question Mark, but on the whole, my garden is free of the winged creatures just now. On my visit, I hoped to see lots of the colorful beauties and take a few pictures for the blog.

When we arrived, can you guess what I realized I had left behind? You got it! My camera. Do you ever do things like that? I was so disgusted with myself that I was just about ready to turn around and leave, but my daughter promised to use her cell phone - mine was in the car - to take a few pictures, so we perservered.

Entering the butterfly habitat is like entering a sauna. This was a day when it was very cold outside, so we were dressed warmly. I was soon shedding as many garments as I decently could.

I was instantly mesmerized by all the butterflies flitting about me, some of them landing on my head or my arms. Many butterflies are fond of salty minerals, so I was probably a tasty treat for them.

The amazing variety of shapes and sizes of species from all over the world is just mind-boggling. I almost got whiplash from trying to follow the flight of each colorful flutterer that came into view. My daughter got down to the business of trying to capture some of the images. Not at all an easy task with an instrument as blunt as a cell phone trying to capture an image as delicate as a butterfly, but here is the result of her efforts.

Throughout the center, there were several of these brightly colored disposable plastic bowls with a sponge in them. The sponges were saturated with either water with minerals or a nectar-like liquid, and they were great favorites with the butterflies.

The windowsills were popular with the fliers, too. I'm not sure if they were attracted by the warmth of the sun or the condensation there. Probably both. Most of the butterflies in the enclosure were exotics that were unfamiliar to me, but there were a few that were known, like the Giant Swallowtails shown here. (These "giants," by the way, which are the biggest butterflies in our area, were dwarfed by many of the species there.) I also saw a few Monarchs, many Julias and some Zebra Longwings.

There were several of these small tables that held pieces of fruit and all of them were covered by hungry butterflies.

Here's another such table that shows you what I mean. You can hardly see the fruit for the butterflies. That plant behind the table, incidentally, is porterweed. It was used extensively throughout the enclosure, which leads me to think that I need to add more porterweed to my garden. I only have one plant at the moment and it has died back to the ground, but I assume it will be back in the spring since it came back after last winter.

Finally, take a look at this big guy. He's perched on the trunk of a small palm tree. This is an Atlas Moth. The docent told me that this is the largest moth in the world, and I can believe it! She said there were four of them presently at the center, but I only saw this one. They had just emerged, she said, and they only live for a couple of days. We were lucky to be there on day one of this critter's brief life.

As we finished our visit and left the butterfly habitat, I was still kicking myself for failing to bring my camera, but I vowed that I would come back again soon and that next time I would no longer be the forgetful blogger. I would be prepared!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Trees in mid-winter

(From the archives.)

"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 19, 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tree plantin' time

The official Arbor Day is celebrated in April every year, but here in the Houston area, we like to get a head start on things. We celebrate our Arbor Day on the third Friday in January. We know that if we wait until April, the beginning of summer's heat is already going to be upon us and any trees that we put into the ground then are going to have to struggle to survive that heat, as well as the inevitable drought. So if you are looking to add trees to your landscape this year, get a move on! Now's the time to do it.

Many gardeners, myself included, are probably looking around their yards for a spot where one or two fruit trees might be added. Fruit trees are popular choices for the home garden because they come in many sizes and can be easily fitted in to even the smallest gardens. Some can even be grown in pots. The reward for growing these trees can be great and sweet, because, believe me, there is nothing sweeter than a fruit you have grown yourself.

I had been contemplating doing a post on growing fruit trees in the Houston area, but last week I was preempted by my fellow blogger Houston Garden Girl. Since I cannot improve on the information that she has already provided in her series of three posts on the subject, let me just invite you to click on her link above, which will take you to the first post and thence to the two which follow.

Then, if you need further inspiration, you might want to pay a visit to Northwest Houston blogger/gardener Clayton Bell and take a virtual walk through his yard via his video. He packs an amazing number and variety of fruit trees, shrubs, and vines into his space.

If you missed the big Urban Harvest fruit tree sale last weekend, never fear. There are still plenty more coming up. One of them is even here in Montgomery County this Saturday - the Montgomery Country Master Gardeners' sale. Check out Kathy Huber's recent post for a complete list of places and times.

And even if you can't make it to any of those sales, I have it on good authority that most of the local nurseries will have nice selections of fruit trees for the next several weeks, so that you can browse and buy in your on good time. But don't wait until February. Now really is the very best time to get those trees in the ground, so they have plenty of time to acclimate before summer.

Happy Arbor Day!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - January 2011

Ah, Bloom Day! That day each month when our imaginative hostess Carol of May Dreams Gardens invites us to share what is blooming in our gardens. Or not, as the case may be. In January in my garden it's mostly not.

I scrounged through my garden, trying desperately to find some blooms I could show you today. I'm here to tell you the pickings are slim.

The vegetable garden actually gave me the most hope.

To help out the few bees who visit the garden in January, I've allowed one of my broccoli heads to bloom. Turns out that bees loooove broccoli! Especially when there's nothing else to sip from.

In the mesclun bed, some of the arugula has bolted and started to bloom. I really like these delicate little blossoms.

Okay, I know it's not a bloom, but I'm desperate here, and I just happen to love the look of this giant red mustard. It's too decorative to hide away in the veggie garden.

These poor little mums have a right to look bedraggled. They've been in bloom for months.

The coral honeysuckle, on the other hand, has just tentatively started blooming.

The winter-blooming leatherleaf mahonia is sloooowly opening up its little bell-shaped blossoms.

The rudbeckia, black-eyed Susan, has been in bloom since summer and stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that it is now winter, still sending out a few blossoms to brighten my days.

The 'Red Lion' amaryllis is almost there. Just like spring in Southeast Texas. In the midst of winter, it is the promise of spring.

Thank you for visiting my winter-sleeping garden this Bloom Day. Please come back soon.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A gardener's week - #22

This gardener's week has been spent mostly inside. My only forays into the garden have been to feed the fish in the pond and net out the leaves and debris, to refill the birdfeeders, and to assess damage from the couple of nights of below freezing weather that we had.

The fish appear to be handling winter. I actually put a heater into the water to give them one area with a little bit of extra warmth, and I often find them swimming in that part of the pond.

The birds are thriving and emptying my birdfeeders on a regular basis.

The garden itself seems to be holding up. I could not detect much additional freeze damage this week. Many of the perennials are sending up green leaves from their roots already. I counted seven bluebonnets in the wildflower bed, and, well, you already know about the poppies. Spring indeed is coming. It might not be evident on these cold, gray days, but stop and look just a little closer and you will see it. All it will take is a few days of sunshine and daytime temperatures in the 60s and it will begin to break the iron grip of winter.

Most of my "gardening" this week has been of the daydreaming variety, and instead of digging in the dirt, I've spent most of my days digging into books.

I finished reading Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas. This is a warmly humorous and loving series of essays detailing the author's family's experiences upon coming to America just before the Iranian Revolution and the taking of the American hostages in Tehran. It is a reminder to us of just how lucky our country has been to attract the best the world has to offer in immigrants.

I also read A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. This is a wonderful book to read when it is cold because it takes place in the cold, cold winters of Wisconsin in 1907 and 1908. It's a terrific book - a kind of gothic bodice-ripper/psychological thriller. It might remind you, as it did me, of Daphne du Maurier and the Bronte' sisters.

And now, to finish out the week, I'm reading Persuasion by Jane Austen. I started reading all of Austen's major works last year and this is the last one. I think it may be one of my favorites, though I doubt it will top Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice.

And speaking of Pride and Prejudice reminds me that I also saw a wonderful movie this week - The King's Speech starring Colin Firth. I freely admit that I have been madly in love with Colin Firth since I first saw him play Mr. Darcy in the A&E series production of P&P many years ago. I also freely admit that I own the DVDs and that, periodically, my daughter and I sit down and watch them and swoon all over again. I was delighted to see that the actress who played Elizabeth Bennett to Firth's Darcy in that series was also in The King's Speech - Jennifer Ehle. She played Geoffrey Rush's wife. If you haven't seen this movie yet, do it!

And other than that, well, I've been sitting around watching my indoor garden grow this week. Here it is:

I'm always reluctant to use live plants in my aquarium because I've had bad experiences with snails brought in on the plants, but PetSmart guaranteed these were snail-free and so I decided to try them. They've been in the aquarium several weeks now and no snails have shown up and, so far, the fish haven't eaten them.

That's my week. Will next week bring more spring-like weather and will I actually get to play in my garden? Tune in next Friday and see.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Our wintry week

It will be cold tonight. Temperatures barely rose into the 40s today and our sky is clear this evening. There are no friendly blanketing clouds to help keep us warm tonight. Before daylight tomorrow, the temperature may get as low as the lower 20s.

For gardeners, this brings to mind the devastating week of cold weather that we had one year ago at this time. After many years of extremely mild winters during which many Southeast Texas gardeners had added lots of tropical plants to their gardens, all of a sudden we had a return to temperatures that were more appropriate to a Zone 8B winter. It was quite a shock to many.

I looked back at my garden journal to recall the temperatures of that cold, cold week in 2010. It began on January 5, when the high was 48 degrees and the low was 27. For seven days thereafter the temperature never rose above 57 during daylight hours and at night, the lows fell well into the 20s every night. On one night, January 9, we reached a low of 18 degrees. That's when many poor plants that had been able to hang on until then finally gave up the ghost.

It's not expected to get that cold, or stay cold that long, this year. By this weekend, the temperatures are expected to begin moderating once again. Within a couple of weeks after that, we'll probably begin seeing more signs of the coming spring. A short cold spell like this, however, will be quite sufficient for those of us who do prefer at least a little bit of real winter to balance out our six or seven months of summer.

Until the weekend and the return of warmer temperatures, do what you need to do to take care of your plants, and please, don't forget to provide extra protection and warmth for any outside pets you may have. They are not used to cold weather either.

And, of course, don't forget to feed the birds!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A gardener's week - #21

It's been moving time in my garden this week. I spent much of the week moving plants from one bed to another or putting into beds some plants that had been stuck in their black plastic nursery pots for a while. All in all, I've moved tens of plants around the yard and I still have tens more to go! But many of those will have to wait until I get their beds ready. I'm still in the process of expanding some beds and adding others. It's been a busy winter so far.

In the vegetable garden, I have some really good greens coming along now and they are on the menu for lunch tomorrow. I've got some nice heads of broccoli, one of which has already bloomed. I've expressly let it bloom for the bees and other insects, because there is not too much else to tempt them in my garden right now. But bees do love broccoli blooms!

Under the grow lights in the garage, one tiny, fragile 'Brandywine' tomato seedling is just poking its head above the soil. I'm hoping that more will follow. Next week, I'm planning to plant flower seeds and perhaps more veggies under the lights as well.

In a bed in the front yard, the one that is just in front of my study window, I planted some poppies last year. They did well for me and bloomed for a long time. I let them go to seed and now I've been rewarded. The plants have reseeded themselves and I have a whole bed of little poppy plants. I'm looking forward to many happy colorful little blooms this spring and summer.

All week long, I've been hearing rumors of a severe freeze coming next week with temperatures in the teens, but I just looked at The Weather Channel website's ten day forecast page and I don't see anything like that. There's only one night during that period that they are predicting to get into the 20s, none into the teens. Perhaps we will luck out and miss the worst of the Arctic air. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

It's not just honeybees that are in trouble

Could native bees disappear from our gardens?

Some disturbing news found its way into my Internet reading aggregator today. It seems that researchers have found that four common species of North American bumblebees have declined by as much as 96 percent in recent decades. Scientists believe that a combination of disease and loss of genetic diversity may be the main culprits in the disappearances.

We have known for several years that honeybee populations are in trouble as a result of the still mysterious colony collapse disorder, but I think many of us had felt rather smug in the knowledge that even if honeybees disappeared, we would still have our native bees to do the important work of pollination for us. It seems that our confidence may have been misplaced.

The fact that native bees like bumblebees, as well as honeybees, are in trouble is not something to be taken lightly. It is not only hobby gardeners who depend on the little critters. Food production right around the world would be seriously impacted by their decline. Fully 90% of the world's commercial crops including most fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, soya beans and cotton are all dependent on pollination by bees to maintain adequate yields. Moreover, bees are an important link in the food chain that sustains birds and other animals.

The findings of the decline are a result of a three-year study led by an entomologist from the University of Illinois. The study team tracked changing distribution, genetic diversity and pathogens in eight species of bumblebees in the U.S. By comparing findings with historical records, they were able to determine that four of the species had declined by up to 96% and also that their geographical ranges had decreased by from 23% to 87%.

Perhaps the most troubling of the findings concerned the loss of genetic diversity. Populations that lack genetic diversity are less able to adapt to changes and to fight off new diseases that pop up. They may even be less able to resist pollution or predators.

In summing up the study, its leader Sydney Cameron wrote: "Pollinator decline has become a worldwide issue, raising increasing concerns over impacts on global food production, stability of pollination services, and disruption of plant-pollinator networks. "

What can we as gardeners do to help?

Number one is to forego pesticides. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are killed by these chemicals just as quickly and effectively as the "bad bugs".

Second, it is important to plant as wide a diversity of plants as possible in order to provide food for the pollinators over the longest possible period. It is also important to provide a shallow water source that the bees can drink from.

And third, try to provide appropriate nest sites and shelter for the insects. Just like any other animal, they need homes.

Too many wonderful animals are disappearing too fast from the earth. From tigers to penguins to fish, hundreds of species are in serious trouble from encroaching humanity, climate change, poaching and loss of genetic diversity. We may not be able to affect the fate of many of them, but perhaps we can do something to help the bees.