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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year in the garden

May 2013 be filled with all good things for you and for your garden. May the sun shine - but not so much as to parch the plants. May the gentle rains fall - but not so much as to wash everything away. May sweet breezes come to cool the brow of the hard-working gardener. And may there be birds and butterflies and toads, frogs, lizards, and turtles aplenty, enough to entertain the gardener. And, most importantly, may the good bugs always outnumber the bad bugs and may all the weed crops fail!


Friday, December 28, 2012

This week in the garden - #44

This was the week of the seed catalog. Every day that our post-woman delivered mail this week, she stuffed our mailbox with seed catalogs. Or, as I like to think of it, garden porn.

This week's haul of porn.

All those beautiful skins on those perfect vegetables. The flowers so gorgeous you can almost smell them through the pages. The shrubs and trees in their tantalizing poses, especially those fruit trees with yummy, blemish-free fruits that you long to just reach out and pluck. And the bulbs! Bulbs that burst from the covering garment of the Earth with their impossibly bright colors on perfect forms. It's all garden porn, I tell you, meant to entice us to sin by ordering more seeds and plants and bulbs than we can possibly care for or that we even have room for in our gardens!

And do I resist the temptation that these catalogs bring? Of course not! After all, where's the fun in resisting temptation.

I do have a complaint though. Several, actually.

The skins on my vegetables never look as perfect as those in the catalogs. My flowers may smell good but they always seem to look a little bedraggled. My shrubs and trees seem to grow very asymmetrically and their fruits are almost never without blemish. And bulbs? Fuhgeddabout it! I have no luck with bulbs.

So my complaint is that my plants never live up to the perfection promised by the seed catalogs. If only I could airbrush my garden to make it look more like all those gorgeous plants on the pages.

Well, as I sit by my fireplace on a cold winter day and browse my stash of garden porn, I can fantasize. Isn't that what porn is all about anyway?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The finch convention

After four December frosts, the garden looks very brown and still, post-Christmas. That is, the plants are brown and still. There is still plenty of color and motion and sound here because the finches have arrived!

Actually, the American Goldfinches have been here for several weeks but they haven't been coming to the feeders in any great numbers until this week. And, finally, this week the Pine Siskins showed up, too, and now I have a convention of finches at the feeders. A confinchion, you might say.

I got a new lens for my camera for Christmas and I'm eager to practice with it, so even though it was cold and a bit drizzly today, I did go out and try to record some of the action at the feeders. These are goldfinches with one lone striped siskin hanging upside down on the left.

On the platform feeder, most of the finches were Pine Siskins.

The finches really like the sunflower seed hearts. They seem to spend more time at this feeder than they do at the thistle socks that I hung just for them.

When the Blue Jay flew in for his snack, all the little birds scattered. But they didn't go far and as soon as he left, they were back again.

I didn't stay out very long because it wasn't particularly pleasant and conditions were not really good for photography. Maybe I can practice some more tomorrow.

On days like this, inseparable companions Beau and Bella have the best idea. Find a warm spot such as your favorite footstool in front of the fireplace and curl up for a nap.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve gift

These are some gifts that Mother Nature gave me in my garden this afternoon, the day before Christmas.

The very first Queen butterfly I had seen in my garden this season!

A somewhat bedraggled male Monarch.

Fiery Skipper.

Cloudless Sulphur.

Gulf Fritillary.

Painted Lady.

Tropical Checkered Skipper.

American Snout.

All of these butterflies, except for the American Snout, were seen nectaring on the purple trailing lantana, which, although nipped by frost, still has many tiny blooms. It was alive with these butterflies and many, many more today - Nature's precious winter gifts to this grateful gardener.

Friday, December 21, 2012

This week in the garden - #43

The brown leaves skitter across the quiet yard pushed by a brisk cold wind from the north. The only other sounds come from the jousting Rufous Hummingbirds as they vie for a place at the sugar water feeders or from the other occasional winter bird announcing its presence at the backyard feeders, and from the splash of water in the little fountain and the fish pond. As the year winds down, the sound level in the yard winds down, too, until, at last, it seems to whisper, fearful of disturbing the sleeping plants.

We had our third frost of the month last night. The temperature registered by my thermometer on the back porch was 32 degrees, but farther away from the house, it was surely colder than that, probably into the 20s. We had an early morning appointment in Houston and so had to get up earlier than usual while the frost was still very evident. It looked almost like a light frosting of snow on the yard.

Just a couple of days ago it was 80 degrees here, but then the cold front blew through with strong winds and the temperature dropped rapidly. That is fairly typical of our weather at this time of year - nothing if not changeable. You never know whether you'll need a sweater or shorts on any given day. It does make our lives interesting.

I understand that it is supposed to warm up again over the weekend, but I hope the colder weather will return by the time our Christmas guests start arriving. Something about the holiday just seems wrong when you have to turn on the air conditioner to keep your guests comfortable!

And so, today, the day of the Winter Solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year, and the end of 13 Baktun on the Mayan long count calendar, I puttered around my garden accompanied by Charlie the garden cat.

Charlie stops to wash his face.

We enjoyed the brilliant sunshine and brisk weather of this first official winter day. I watched the goldfinches hanging upside down eating the crape myrtle seeds. (Most members of the finch family love crape myrtle seeds, which is an excellent reason not to prune your seedheads off before the birds have a chance to strip them.) I thought about all the tasks that I need to get started on as soon as the holidays are over. For the next week, the garden will have to wait as I fulfill my annual role as hostess for the family year-end celebration. It's a role that I love, but I admit I am also always glad to get it behind me so that I can concentrate on my garden again.

Whatever holidays you celebrate at this time of year, I hope they are happy days for you and your loved ones and that the coming year for you will be a healthy one filled with all the best that life has to offer. And may much of that "best" be waiting for you in your garden.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - December 2012/This week in the garden - #42

I considered skipping Bloom Day this month. Frankly, after the horror of the last twenty-four hours with the murder of twenty innocent children and six of their caretakers in Connecticut, I'm not really in the mood for blogging about blossoms. But I have vented about that tragedy elsewhere so I won't burden you with further words about it here.

In fact, though, it may be at times like this that we most need our gardens. We need the consolation of the turning of the seasons, the beauty of Nature, and the belief that life will continue and that something good may come even of the deepest tragedy.

My garden is slipping into its short winter nap. We did have our first frost of the season on Monday night and our second one on Tuesday night. Since then it has gradually warmed up and temperatures are back near 80 degrees F today. But the two nights with temperatures at freezing put an end to most of the bloomers in my garden. That's okay. My garden has worked hard all year. It deserves a bit of a rest.

The day before our first frost, I noticed that one of my crinums had put out some buds. I wondered if those buds would survive the frost. Well, I needn't have wondered. Crinums are very tough plants and even though the leaves got bitten by frost, the buds survived and a couple of days later, they opened to display beautiful blooms. Maybe there is a metaphor there somewhere.

There are a few other plants still blooming in my garden - a few roses, the shrimp plant, Copper Canyon daisy, orange bulbine, even the purple lantana is still offering a few blossoms for winter butterflies to sip from - but most everything else is sleeping now and so we have to look inside for more blooms.

The ubiquitous flower of the season, poinsettias, brighten my hearth. I hope that you have blossoms to brighten your life on this Bloom Day and at this holiday season.

Remember to pay a visit to Carol at May Dreams Garden for a list of other Bloom Day participants and to see what's blooming around the world.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Creating Rain Gardens by Cleo Woelfle-Erskine and Apryl Uncapher: A review

In a world which is heating up and where long-lasting droughts are becoming more and more common, the value of the water provided free to us by Mother Nature cannot be overrated. And yet much - probably most - of that water is not utilized as it might be to enhance the environment. Often it simply runs off along gutters and down storm drains, picking up contaminants as it goes and sweeping them into lakes, streams, rivers, and, ultimately, oceans and creating a whole additional environmental problem. 

It is easy for an individual gardener to feel overwhelmed by the environmental devastation facing Earth, to feel impotent about doing anything to effect a solution. But the waste of rainwater is most definitely something that we can and should do something about. In this book, Cleo Woelfle-Erskine and Apryl Uncapher explain to us with step-by-step instructions just how we can accomplish that.

Capturing rainwater is a way to make your own garden practices more water-efficient and self-sustaining, and there are many different ways to do this. Perhaps the most familiar and the easiest method is the rain barrel which captures the water run-off from your roof, water which you can then use in watering your garden. From this easiest of methods, one can progress through many phases right up to the full-blown rain garden which captures rainwater runoff which is then absorbed back into your garden. Such places are magnets for birds, butterflies, dragonflies, many beneficial insects, as well as other interesting wildlife like reptiles and amphibians and even small mammals.

Some of the other methods of conserving water that are outlined in the book include permeable patios, simple living roofs, and planters that harvest rainwater from their surroundings. The authors also include lists of water-loving plants and explain how to work them into your gardening palette for maximum benefit. Examples are given for a prairie rain garden, a native wildflower garden, and even an edible rain garden.

This is the kind of practical handbook which I, as a gardener, find most useful - fewer airy-fairy theories and more down and dirty instructions. If you are that kind of gardener and you are interested in conserving rainwater, you might enjoy this book.

(Full disclosure: A copy of the book was provided to me by the publisher, Timber Press, free of charge for the purposes of this review.) 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

First frost - sort of

The average first frost date for my area is December 10, and last night, right on schedule, we did have our first frost. It didn't actually amount to much. It wasn't what we used to call on the farm a "killing frost," but it did put an end to the tenderest of the tender.

The banana plants, for example, were well nipped.

And the old cannas by the fence are as brown as that fence today.

There'll be no more brugmansia blooms this year.

The tops of the Hamelia patens received the brunt of the frost. Underneath the plants are still green, but there'll be no more blooms from them this year either.

The most exposed parts of the Turk's caps along the southern wall of the house got nipped back, but the overall plant is well-protected and still providing blooms for my overwintering hummingbirds.

One of those hummingbirds, a female Rufous, was getting as close as she could to the sun today on this exposed branch.

The Copper Canyon daisy, which is actually rather a tender plant, did not appear to be damaged and is still blooming.

And this crinum which was just about to burst into bloom is still just about to burst into bloom

It looks like the temperature may get down to 32 degrees again tonight which will probably mean a bit more frost. Just two weeks until Christmas, so it's about time we had some cold weather!

Friday, December 7, 2012

This week in the garden - #41

Most of my efforts in the garden this week amounted to what my mother would have called "piddling" - a little bit of this and a little bit of that, not really much to show for it but enough to keep me busy.

Truthfully, most of my attention has been on the house this week as we prepared to have a couple of rooms painted to freshen them for the holidays and I did some rearranging of furniture for the same reason, so it was a productive week, just not in the garden.

Today, while the painters were doing their thing inside, I went outside to try to get some hummingbird pictures. There's been an unusual amount (for December) of hummingbird activity in the yard this week. At least three of the little guys have been doing battle over the remaining flowers and the sugar water feeders. I wasn't really sure of the identity of all of them so I wanted to get some pictures to try to confirm just who they were.

I took my chair and my camera and binoculars out by my little pond where a hummingbird feeder hangs from a tree limb. I had seen at least one of the birds feeding there several times this week so I thought that would be my best shot at getting a picture. So I sat down and waited. And waited. And waited some more. As often happens, the birds were not cooperative.

While I was waiting though, I amused myself by watching some of the other visitors to the area.

I've been seeing this beautiful dragonfly around the pond all week. I believe it is called a roseate skimmer or possibly a scarlet skimmer. Unfortunately, I'm not much of an expert on dragonflies.

But I sure do like them anyway. They are fun to watch and fun to photograph.

This one was very cooperative, unlike the hummingbirds.

There were lots of Cloudless Sulphur butterflies flitting around as well. Several of them were taking advantage of the last blooms of the Anisacanthus wrightii, flame acanthus.

I decided the hummingbirds were not coming to the feeder and tried to take a picture of one that was feeding on the yellow cestrum.

In this light, he appears to be juvenile Rufous Hummingbird.

 But later, he did actually come to the feeder and I don't see any rufous on him here. Or is this another bird altogether?

I'm so confused!

At least there's no confusion about this. It is a male Monarch. I'm still getting a steady stream of Monarchs through my garden. There were at least two here today.

The holiday season is upon us and yet it is hard for me to feel very holidayish when the temperatures continue to be around 80. Our average first frost of the season comes around December 10. That's just three days away. It doesn't seem very likely, but the weather can change quickly, so who knows? We may yet get some cooler weather to help put us in the mood.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Friday, November 30, 2012

This week in the garden - #40

My week in the garden has been spent primarily on continuing clean up and repositioning after the recent tree removal and the pruning of the big trees in my yard. I've been picking up dead limbs and sticks and rearranging the outdoor furniture, as well as moving and utilizing some of the sawdust left over from stump grinding.

Another important "chore" has been observing the movement of sunlight across the yard and learning how it has changed. My garden had grown quite shady over the years as the trees grew and the removal of three big trees has definitely changed that in places. I need to rethink some of my plantings, and I will need to move some plants. My preferred time for uprooting and moving plants is winter, so that will have to wait a few more weeks. In the meantime, I'm thinking and planning.

I also did a bit of weeding in the vegetable garden this week. Several of the greens crops there will soon be ready for the table, as are the black-eyed peas now. And the largest of my butternut squashes is almost ready. I can hardly wait!

My plant of the week this week is Euphorbia tirucalli, known as pencil plant.

Actually, this plant has many, many common names. Among them are firestick plant or sticks on fire, Indian tree spurge, naked lady, pencil tree or pencil cactus (although it is not a cactus), and milk bush. That last name comes from the sticky sap that is produced when you cut a section.

For most of the year, this plant, which lives in a big pot with other succulents near my back porch, is bright green, but as the weather gets cooler, it starts developing this orange blush over many of its sections. Easy to see how it gets the name firestick plant or sticks on fire.

This is a hardy succulent. Mine stays outside all winter in my zone 9b garden. If it is going to get much below freezing, I try to give it some protection - not so easy any more since it has grown quite large. A couple of times it has died back almost to the ground in winter, but it has always come back and flourishes again in spring. Moreover, it is exceptionally easy to propagate. I find that if I just break off a section and stick it in the soil, it will generally root. It is a fascinating plant, one that I very much enjoy having in my garden.

'Tis the season and the amaryllises are blooming.

Happy gardening!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Copper Canyon daisy

Autumn is Copper Canyon daisy time in my garden. This tough, drought-tolerant shrubby plant has been a part of my garden for several years and this year it has been particularly floriferous.
This perennial shrub can grow to about three to four feet tall and five to six feet wide. That pretty much describes mine in its present form. It has feathery foliage which gives the plant an airy, rather blowsy appearance. At the height of its bloom (mine is a bit past that point now) the inch-wide blooms can completely cover and obscure the leaves, making the plant look like a big mound of yellow. It is quite a striking sight. This native daisy will grow in full sun or partial shade. Mine is in partial shade.
The original plant was native in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico, but it has been introduced and naturalized in many parts of Texas and it grows extremely well even here in humid Southeast Texas. Yes, this is one tough and versatile plant!
One of the most noticeable attributes of the plant is its scent. It has a very strong "marigold" scent which some people might find objectionable, but which I actually enjoy..The scent may be one of the things that makes this plant deer-resistant, a very important trait in many areas.
Other names for this plant include Mexican bush marigold, Mt. Lemmon marigold, and mountain marigold. The plant was collected by John Gill and Sara Lemmon in southeastern Arizona in the 1880s. The Lemmons developed the plant and introduced it to the nursery trade in California. The botanical name, Tagetes lemmonii, recognizes that contribution.
As our climate changes and we have to deal with extended droughts, area gardeners search for plants that can thrive in such conditions and Copper Canyon daisy can be added to that list. Once established, it does not require any extra water and no fertilizer. It is a lazy gardener's dream plant.
This is my belated contribution to Wildflower Wednesday, sponsored by Gail of Clay and Limestone. Visit her blog to see other entries.