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Garden journal


November 18, 2017. Harvesting satsuma oranges
While I was still living in an apartment after moving to Houston, before the family followed me over, Amy visited me for a househunting trip in late February. The thing she liked best about the area was all the citrus trees bearing colorful fruit poking up above fences in residential gardens. So once we were ready to start our own garden, citrus was definitely high on the priority list. Our first attempt was a 'Lisbon' lemon tree, but it promptly died in the one hard freeze of winter. We learned that most lemon trees around the area had perished, and that satsuma oranges were the safest (that is, most cold-hardy) citrus to grow. So we bought two at a master gardener fruit tree sale and gave them homes along the back fence. They flowered in early spring, and even though the trees were quite small, they set a nice little crop of fruit. We were aware of the advice to remove fruit for the first year or two so that the trees could put their energy into growth, but we couldn't resist leaving a few to see how they'd do. Through the season, they grew steadily, and in October the fruit on one of the trees started coloring up. Today, the tree looked as in this picture: heavy yellow-orange fruit pulling down on the poor thing's limbs. So we decided it was finally time to harvest our first satsuma. It was amazingly easy to peel, but the orange inside was disappointing: not very juicy, and not very flavorful. We then tried harvesting a still-green fruit off the other tree, and although it too wasn't at its prime, it had a little more flavor. So I think we need to harvest earlier in future years, before the peel colors up. Either that, or the youth of our trees prevented them from producing fruit of the quality expected from more mature trees. It will take at least a couple more years before we can test that hypothesis – we'll enjoy watching our trees grow and hopefully flourish in the meantime.
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November 11, 2017. Farm Club
One of the things that inspired us to buy a home in our new development, named Harvest Green, was the farm and garden focus of this master-planned community. So far, the verdict is out on how successful the concept will be, but we decided we would do our best to support it. So when the community gardening plots started up this fall (they call it Farm Club), we jumped on board and claimed our own little section, consisting of four rows of eight feet long, perhaps 18 inches wide, in which to grow a bounty of vegetables. Amy recruited a new gnome just to stand guard over our plot, and I planted a variety of transplants (mostly cole crops) into some rows, and sowed several additional crops (lettuce, beets, leeks, carrots, and peas) into the rest of the area. By now, most of the seeded areas are showing some seedlings, and most of those cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower and doing fine. We know very little about vegetable garden on the hot Gulf Coast, but are determined to find out how to make it work. And we hope a community of fellow gardeners sprouts up around us! I'll treat it as an outpost of our home garden (only a mile away, after all), and report on our progress here from time to time.
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November 05, 2017. Racing against winter
About a week after I wrote the previous entry, I spotted a new feature while inspecting our plumeria: a tiny cluster of buds that did not resemble the leaf buds I'd been watching all year. It seemed like I might see flowers after all! However, the buds didn't develop much in the following weeks, and then suddenly, a week ago, we had a surprise frost. In the middle of Houston's balmy autumn weather, we had a brief stretch of cooler temperatures, and one morning there was the unmistakable silvery covering on the lawn. I was leaving on a business trip that morning, and did not know what to expect when I returned several days later; but when I did, I found that the frost must have been quite mild, since most plants (including basil, which I find blackens at even light freezes) escaped unscathed. But the plumeria had clearly felt the effects of the temperature drop: many of its older leaves had yellowed and dropped. But many more, especially the newer ones, were still alive and well, and the flower buds had developed to the stage shown in the picture here. In the meantime, we were back to the 80s for afternoon highs. So now it's a race against the clock: will the flowers develop before a more significant freeze comes to our area and shuts our plumeria down? I'll keep you updated.
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October 12, 2017. Tropical tastes
All our local nurseries specialize in tempting their customers with tropical fare and flare. It's so hot and humid nearly all of the year that those extravagant beauties from frost-free climates do great around here – except in years where the annual cold snap in January sends the thermometer to just slightly lower temperatures than usual (say, below 25F) for a little longer than usual (more than a few overnight hours). We had one of those more severe cold snaps this past winter (our first since moving to Houston), and sure enough, the lemon tree we had planted last year was toast (as were nearly all lemon trees in the general area), and many other of the flamboyant tropicals we had added suffered severe dieback – although most came back from the roots, they never reached the state of splendor displayed on the nursery tables last year that had prompted us to buy them in the first place.
So the overwhelming emphasis on tropicals (in which I count any plant rated no hardier than USDA zone 9 – our official zone here is 8b) is a mixed blessing at best. But it does provide an opportunity to get familiar with a whole host of plants I'd never before encountered. Two of those are shown here, in an interesting combination: the large-leaved plumeria, which we bought as a rooted stick in early spring, and the fine-textured duranta, purchased a little later in spring for its enchanting strands of deep purple-blue flowers. As hardiness goes, the plumeria is hopeless: it's hardy to only zone 10, so it will bite the dust in the first frost. I had hoped to see its elegant white flowers this year, but no such luck. Still, I'm happy to have had it in the garden this year: the large leaves held on fat fleshy stems make quite a statement, and I love the way the new leaves unfurl. Maybe I'll even try to make my own cutting in early winter, to keep a piece alive indoors, protected from the cold. The duranta stands a better chance of survival: it is hardy to zone 9, which means it can survive mild winters in our area. I'm hoping for a string of those, which might allow our specimen to grow into the small tree form that it can attain with time. I have no idea how likely it is for that scenario to play out. As with so many aspects of gardening in new circumstances, learning will come from experience – doing and observing in our own garden. No matter how much guidance I seek from local gardening sites or nursery personnel, I don't really believe it until I see for myself.
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Urbanus proteus - long-tailed skipper
October 07, 2017. All aflutter
We're starting to reap the rewards of planting a floriferous garden. In recent weeks, more and more butterflies have paid us visits (and some hummingbirds, too!). I'm delighted to add the gulf fritillary to my list of butterflies I'm on a first-name basis with, with several encounters in the past week, and we've also seen a few swallowtails as well as flighty brown skippers. Today I witnessed a couple of monarchs laying eggs on our milkweed. And when Amy stepped out to take a break from her teacher activities, she spotted the colorful creature in the picture here, which I first mistook for a day-flying moth because of its furry body. Turns out it's a long-tailed skipper – a rather more impressive species than most other skippers I've had the pleasure to meet.
We've really only just started going on our garden, so I hope that with a greater variety of plants and flowers, we'll continue to attract more of these wonderful creatures to our garden in years to come. Now, if only more of our neighbors would join in, we'd have a more continuous butterfly habitat through the neighborhood – for now, it's a few oases in a sea of rather uninspiring (to a butterfly, at least) bermudagrass.
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September 24, 2017. Growing up
Our new Texas garden has less of most things than our first garden in Pennsylvania. It has less space for sure, less shade, fewer trees, less drainage, less snow... And most of the things it has more of are of questionable value to me: more heat, more overhead sun, more aggressive lawn grass, more fire ants, more dependence on tropical plantings. But of course there are a few positive "more"s too. And chief among those, I think, is "more vertical gardening space".
Our Allentown garden used hedges and low fences to delineate where our garden ended and the neighbors' garden started, with a spruce-lined berm defining the back edge. Those were great for backing mixed perennial borders, but I always struggled to find places to plant vines, especially ones that want to grow taller than our 4-foot fences.
Our Houston garden, by contrast, is boxed in by 6-foot privacy fences, as are all gardens in developments around here. That's a good thing – the homes are built so close together that not having that physical separation would really make it feel like you were living on top of each other. Although by themselves, or with lawn extending all the way to their base, the fences aren't particularly attractive, with garden borders at their feet, they make for a fine backdrop. But their real potential comes in their ability to support, with some added trellising, a wide variety of climbing, clambering, and twining plants. There are so many candidates (even more in this subtropical climate) that we could easily cover all those fence panels along the back, left, and right sides of the backyard with a colorful patchwork of vines. Thus far, we've tried a few, some more successfully than others.
The first one was Carolina jessamine, planted in March as a small plant. We gave it a prebuilt trellis to climb on, and now, at the end of summer, it's climbed all the way up and its stems are reaching in vain for more support, as the photo here shows. We're hoping for a marvellous show of golden flowers next spring! A second early purchase, a clematis, was not nearly as successful – even though its feet got some shade from nearby plants, it faded away in the heat of summer. While it's not quite dead, it never got around to growing upward on the supports I attached to the fence. Surprisingly, the mandevilla we planted, while seemingly happy to be alive, has not shown any inclination to climb; the same goes for an Arabian jasmin purchased as a small plant. We hold out hope for both of those next year, assuming we have a mild winter.
Other successes include a tempranillo grape, bought at a local grocery store as a small rooted cutting in spring, which has several vines climbing toward the top of the fence, and a cape honeysuckle. The latter is more a rambler than a vine, but it has gratefully taken advantage of a lattice panel we nailed to the fence, weaving itself through and allow it to colonize quite a large swath of fence. Unfortunately, it's not been inclined to bloom since shortly after we planted it in spring, but I assume it will do so (hopefully magnificently) at some point.
That only accounts for a tiny fraction of our fence, so we have lots more opportunities for vertical gardening. We'll be trying annuals and woody perennials, tropicals and temperate plants – plenty of fun ahead.
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September 10, 2017. Extending the fence border
Look out from any house in our subdivision into the backyard and you're likely to see an expanse of grass right up to the cedar slat privacy fence that separates all our backyards from each other. Especially in as new a neighborhood as ours, there's just not much "garden" in those yards yet. But I'm trying to rid our yard of that look, which is particularly unattractive to me – so I've been chipping away at the extent of the line along which lawn and fence meet. As part of April's pond installation project, I tackled the entire back fenceline, so that there is now anywhere between about 3 ft and 8 ft of gardenable border between the lawn and the fence. But the fencelines on both sides still need work. This weekend, after the nursery trip I talked about a couple days ago, I had a couple of plants left without an obvious spot in the existing garden borders, so that was an excellent excuse to continue project lawn-away. The target of my efforts was a stretch along the left fenceline, between the back corner where we had planted two fig trees last fall and a lonesome seed-starting bed further down along the fence that had become overrun with weeds. The two needed to be connected, with some good edging in place to prevent continued infestation. Since moving here, I have come to realize that by far my wickedest weed is the bermudagrass that our development insisted on having planted in all the yards. As a northerner, I was not initially aware of its aggressively invasive tendencies, expanding its territory both with aboveground runners that root wherever they touch soil, and with underground rhizomes that can go for several feet before popping up in unexpected places. Keeping the lawn in its place is a daunting task, and a nearly impossible one without a physical barrier to keep at least the sneaky underground invasion at bay. So I've become a good customer of outlets selling plastic edging products, and have gotten rather efficient at installing such products; I'm still dealing with the aftermath of my originally lax methods, with bermudagrass sprigs emerging here and there and everywhere in most garden areas. It gives me great satisfaction when I manage to pull up a long length of rhizome, knowing that I'm that much closer to getting the scourge under control. But I don't fool myself into believing it will ever be truly under control – mindful of the diabolical ways of the pretty creeping bamboo that threatened to overrun our Pennsylvania garden, I know that these kinds of weeds always find a way. What's worse, remember what's behind those fences that run behind the garden borders? Right: the neighbors' lawns. Bermudagrass doesn't respect property lines... Consequently, the backs of those borders are where new infestations pop up most of all. Till now, I had stacked some bricks along our fenceline to serve as a makeshift border, but they hardly deter the devilish grass. So for this latest stretch of border I took a new approach: I cut a 9-inch-wide strip of heavy butyl rubber liner left over from our swimming pond project more than 10 years ago, and tacked it to the bottom of our fence, The rubber extends into the soil, hopefully deep enough to deter wandering roots, while the tack line is hidden by a simple row of bricks arranged along the back of the border. We'll see how effective this is - if it works, I may implement it in more areas (there's plenty more rubber liner!). A side benefit of the border construction: I managed to bury the contents of our tumbling composter, which had devolved into a black maggot-ridden stringy mess without any tendency to turn into crumbly compost, in the bottom of the newly dug border, giving a fresh start to the attempt at composting. Seems like everything's a project, everything's an experiment. Kind of like my day job, really...

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Our new pride of Barbados found a home along the back fence
September 07, 2017. Out with the old, in with the new!
Starting a new garden has been full of experiments. Most of our old favorite plants aren't available here, and the selections at local nurseries are mostly unfamiliar. So we usually return from nursery trips with a jumble of new-to-us plants to try. Even though those plants are presumably good choices for our climate, I've still found that many of them perish quickly. This may be partly because we did a lot of planting in early May, right after our waterfall pond installation kick-started our back yard – and that's when things were starting to get real hot. So more plants than I care to think about have bitten the dust by now, and hurricane Harvey threw a few more into disarray, leaving the garden with some new holes alongside the sparsely planted border bits that we simply hadn't gotten around to yet. Hopeful that this is a better time to plant (no temperatures above 90°F in the 10-day forecast!), and spurred on by the late-season sale at a local nursery chain, Amy and I went on a shopping spree today. We returned with yet more tropical color (I'm hoping for a mild winter!), with such local favorites as pride of Barbados and shrimp plant (both of which should please the hummingbirds that have recently been visiting our garden), Louisiana irises, a few cannas, and a few plants that were altogether unfamiliar. Of course we got some old favorites as well, mostly in the seasonal department: Amy wouldn't be without mums in the fall (even though autumn is a different beast here), and we picked up some gazanias, curious to see how they'll do in this climate. I'll have a good time finding places for all of them in our garden, and hope that they'll find the somewhat cooler weather more to their liking.
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a barrier of concrete and peat moss
August 31, 2017. Hypertufa repurposed
In previous years, I've written about our collection of home-made hypertufa troughs, built to house an expanding collection of small rock garden plants when we lived in Pennsylvania. Here in Houston, I've been daunted by the prospect of keeping anything, let alone finnicky alpines, alive in quick-drying containers, so although we moved most of the troughs out here, they've sat empty on our back patio for well over a year now. Until a few days ago: hurricane Harvey's downpours had filled our pond to the brim, and our goldfish were starting to make moves to explore the big beyond, trying to scoot across the flagstones that define the front ledge of the pond. Not wishing to have their beloved fishies meet their demise in a bermudagrass lawn, Amy and a couple of kids sprang into action, building an innovative wall of hypertufa across the front of the pond. It's such a masterful work of architectural prowess that I've been hesitant to take it down, although I guess its demise is imminent at this point – we've had several days of regular hot Houston weather, and the pond is back to its normal level (it may even need topping up sometime soon!).
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rain catcher
August 27, 2017. Moisture abounds
Harvey is paying us a visit this weekend, and he means business. This morning, like last morning, the wheelbarrow I keep outside as a rain gauge was filled to overflowing, with more rain slapping down furiously. The fact that the wheelbarrow has remained upright is a testament to the fact that, despite tornado warnings and sightings left and right around us, we haven't been hit by too much wind thus far (keeping our fingers crossed). I'm sure the plants in the garden were hoping for some water after the stretch of very hot weather we'd been having until recently, but I think they've had enough now, thank you. The grasses that waved majestically in the wind behind our pond are flat on the ground, having suffered the combined effects of wind and downpour – but other than that, it's all just very wet. We're lucky to live in a new neighborhood, constructed with flood hazards in mind – Oyster Creek, which runs right behind our subdivision, has overflowed its banks impressively, but the water levels are still well below home levels. We're due to get quite a bit more rain in the next few days, so hopefully I didn't speak too soon... Meanwhile, at least the stifling heat has abated!
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August 13, 2017. Return of a Favorite
Mexican sunflower was one of the first annuals I grew from seed indoors. That spring, nearly 20 years ago, I transformed a guest room into a plant nursery (several years before it became the other kind of nursery), hit the seed catalogs, and tried out some new plants. My co-conspirator was Amy, then my girlfriend, soon to be my fiançée. Among the new plants to try was Tithonia rotundifolia – not uncommon by any means, but not sold at nurseries. The plants found a home in the newly created side garden of our Pennsylvania home, and did marvellously, treating us to a continuous show of cheerful orange sunflowers all summer. When we scheduled our backyard wedding for mid-September of that year, we decided all guests would enter through the side garden, so it became my mission to keep the flower show going. I meticulously deadheaded and kept things fertilized, and sure enough, the Mexican sunflowers and their neighbors looked wonderful on the big day. Ever since, Tithonia has had a special meaning to us, and we grew new plants every year from seed collected the previous year. When the side garden became shadier, they moved to the curve garden, but they were always part of the garden.
Having moved to Houston, seed starting wasn't very high on my to-do list, and I have yet to re-establish any kind of nursery operation. But I did try to grow a number of favorites by direct-sowing into our newly established borders – and one of them was tithonia. It was one of only a few varieties that decided to send up seedlings, and it seemed to take forever for them to grow to a reasonable size. But now, finally, we are rewarded with those familiar orange flowers. It seems fitting that they have followed us here to the Gulf Coast, descendants of our original crop of wedding ornamentals.
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fungal invasion
August 10, 2017. Mushrooms, mushrooms everywhere
The soil in our new Houston garden is sticky clay. Ben actually took some of it and used it as sculpting clay – it's quite suitable for the purpose. I'm a little surprised at just how pure the clay is: our neighborhood is being built on land previously used for farming, so I had expected more of a mixed soil, with evidence of many years of tilling and being worked, but the clearly delineated bands of different clay color suggest that the soil hasn't been much disturbed by agriculture. Perhaps the farm soil was removed before building the neighborhood. In any case, I'm not finding the virgin clay soil to be particularly conducive to good gardening results. It appears to have fairly low fertility, or at least low amounts of necessary elements readily accessible to ornamental plants. Since drainage is a common problem around here, due to the combination of the periodic massive rainfalls and the dense clay soil, I liberally add bagged organic soil amendments whenever I create a new garden section, mixing it into the clay soil to improve its texture. Mostly, I use a product available locally called 'landscape soil mix' which is something between compost and mulch, with a bit of fine sand mixed in. Other suppliers offer similar products, often labeled 'topsoil', although there really isn't any soil in the bag – it's all organic matter. In any case, it does the trick in terms of breaking up the clay and making the soil easier to work with, plant in, and pull weeds from. All good. But it doesn't appear to have helped the fertility very much at all, and even periodic applications of organic fertilizer such as Milorganite produce lackluster results. But I think things are looking up – because when I look down, I see mushrooms everywhere. To be honest, they're quite ugly, disfiguring the planted areas, and popping up especially abundantly right around all the perennials we've planted. But I think (hope) that they are a sign of strong fungal activity below the soil, helping to decompose all that 'soil mix' organic matter and releasing its nutrients into the surrounding soil. A few more years of working the soil, adding amendments, and mulching may just result in a garden soil that supports an abundant ornamental garden. I'm once again reminded that gardening is a journey.
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July 07, 2017. Sticky-toes
Last week, while I was on a business trip, I got several phone calls from the home front. The first reported, disgustedly, "There's a new kind of toad - it goes BEK BEK BEK all night, and kept us all awake". Later that evening, an important update: "We caught it - it's not a toad but a frog. A little cute guy". A quick search determined that it was an American tree frog, which is apparently common in the southeastern US, but doesn't occur as far north as Pennsylvania. I was excited –
finding new vertebrate species in the garden is an uncommon occurrence. Unfortunately, the family minus papa decided that frog had to go, due to its violating the homestead noise ordnance, and after taking a few pictures for me, they released it to the neighborhood's common lake. But a week after I returned home, there was that "BEK BEK BEK" again. As before, it was Ben who spotted the frog first. When I found him, he was clinging to a horsetail stalk along our pond's stream. The family is determined to continue their forced migration policy, so this one too got captured. In the process of transferring it between containers in the kitchen, it amazed us by escaping, jumping from a high counter onto the floor, and promptly clambering up the kitchen cabinets with its suction-cup toes. Neat-o! I think his family and friends are likely to keep finding our pond, and would like to accommodate them in our garden's ecosystem. Anybody know of a BEK BEK BEK noise canceling device?

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judging by the diagonal path of the rain, wind came from the north this morning
June 24, 2017. Rumble and roar
The Houston climate isn't much to our liking. The mild winters are nice enough, but we miss the snow; and the humid summer heat is miserable. But there is one distinct pleasure: the awesome thunderstorms. The Texas Gulf Coast knows how to put on a good show, with marvelous cloud parties, earsplitting thunderclaps, and impressive volumes of rain. We've already had our share of upper-90s sun-scorched days, so any rain is a welcome relief – and we got a good one this morning, dropping about four inches of water in a matter of a few hours. The fish were excited, too – they kept jumping up at the surface to get closer to the raindrops. To deal with the periodic deluges, all yards in new developments around here are carefully graded to create swales that carry the water away from the houses toward the street, where storm drains are at the ready to dispose of the excess H2O. The construction of our pond interrupted the rightward swale of our backyard, so that a puddle forms almost any time any significant rain falls. I'll have to regrade the yard a bit to deal with that; in the meantime, it's fun to wade through the warm-water puddle in bare feet after storms. Actually, the whole back yard is exquisitely squishy. I've turned off the sprinkler system for the week.
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papaloquelite, just planted
June 18, 2017. Papaloqueleeeee
Since our new neighborhood is themed around farming and gardening, it only seemed right that we'd give the associated CSA (community-supported agriculture) operation a try. For a fixed cost per week, we get a box of organically grown veggies delivered to our door every Saturday. We're about two months in, and so far the value of the deal is questionable, at least for our family – but it's certainly been entertaining to see what every week brings. There's always an odd assortment – until recently, mostly of cool-season veggies like beets, turnips, and kohlrabi, and, much to Amy's dismay, copious quantities of daikon radish. The past few weeks, the boxes have shifted to green and red tomatoes, various peppers and squashes, and okra. And, for the past three weeks, a tidy bunch of bare-root herbs we didn't recognize. A quick look at the CSA website identified them as papaloquelite, or summer cilantro – a fragrant herb with a flavor somewhere between cilantro, arugula, and rue, with a hint of nasturtium. We couldn't come up with a good use for them, so the first two bunches eventually found their way into our composter. But I decided to treat this weekend's offering differently, instead attempting to grow the herbs on in our garden to witness their habit for myself – and maybe, just maybe, we'd come up with a use for the flavorful leaves at some later stage of the year. And our garden has lots of unused space for now; nature abhors a vacuum, and so do I, so let's fill it with mystery herbs instead! About a dozen plantlets are set in a few groups around the backyard. Hopefully, some of them will survive. I'll document their progress here.
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Rooted cuttings of two salvia varieties
June 17, 2017. Rootlings
My efforts to propagate some plants by cuttings, as described a few weeks ago, are partially successful. While many attempts have withered to dry brown stalks (now discarded), some cuttings are faring notably better. The best results so far are with a couple of salvia varieties, which have produced enough roots that they have started protruding from the bottom of the small pots I used. I'm hardening these plantlets off right now, to introduce them to the garden in the near future. Others that look promising are several succulents (no surprise there) as well as Carolina jessamine. I hope to keep learning about how to grow more of my favorite plants vegetatively as a way of getting garden-ready plants more quickly than I could using seeds. That's not to say I'm giving up on seeds – I'm happy to report that a few of my patio seed trials have likewise produced results, although those seedlings are still mighty tiny, compared to their cutting-grown neighbors.
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mophead, meet baby's breath
June 04, 2017. Combinations are good
Just a happenstance combination in our garden – which doesn't happen very much yet in our new locale, since our borders are still quite sparse, with plants mostly spaced optimistically in anticipation of luxuriant growth. But baby's breath likes to flop, and flop it did – right onto our Bloomstruck hydrangea, creating a serviceable color combination. I hope it's the first of many happy coincidences (and occasionally, on-purposes) to come!
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Transformation from mid-April to early June
June 03, 2017. Six weeks' difference
Time flies – it's been a month and a half since our waterfall pond was installed, and we've been busy since then. So have the plants in the pond, which have filled out their allotted spaces and increased in number through a few additional purchases. We added a small paved area in front of the pond – not big enough to be called a patio, but it's a good place from which to watch and feed the fish, and observe the dragon flies and toads. And all around the pond, the grass is gone, transformed into garden borders, with a few plantings in place. Not nearly enough to provide the lush look we're after in the long run, but it's easier to see now how that look will be accomplished. The grasses behind the pond will grow up and add wind-blown movement to the scene, while the satsuma orange trees, an oleander, a bottlebrush tree, and a bougainvillea will eventually provide a shrubby backdrop. It's good that we could get this all done in April and May, because now that June has arrived, the weather has turned hot and steamy – OK to venture out to feed the fish and enjoy the garden for a few minutes, but not much fun to do any heavy-lifting work in.
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first tray-ful of attempts
June 01, 2017. Making more plants
As expensive as plants are here around Houston, it's very attractive to make more of your own. For many years, I was an avid seed-starter, and I may return to that next season. But this season, my seed efforts (all outdoors – I have no good place to start them inside) have mostly fizzled. So my next attempt is asexual propagation – using cuttings. I've tried my hand at cuttings before, as evidenced by my 2008 post about my Nearing frame, but I never had much luck. I have an inkling that the heat-loving plants in our current garden are on average better candidates for growing from cuttings than the cooler-zone plants I attempted previously, so I invested in some new rooting powder, snipped a bunch of cuttings from a variety of our new plants (both herbaceous perennials and shrubs), and stuck them in small pots filled with potting soil. They're left to establish themselves on our patio, which should offer reasonably favorable conditions: bright without direct sunlight, temperatures vary between 70 and 90°F from night to day, and the climate is naturally humid. So far (a few days onward) most of them are at least still green; I won't know my success rate till a few weeks from now.

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Ixora, offered without warning by a local nursery, is only hardy to zone 9 or 10
May 29, 2017. Zone denial is universal
In the temperate climate of eastern Pennsylvania, which the USDA zone map places in zone 6, many gardeners were tempted to push their luck with plants that weren't quite hardy. In many winters, a plant listed as hardy only to zone 7 might survive – especially if extra measures were taken to provide for winter comfort. Thick layers of mulch, canvas canopies, straw bunkers, and other devices were put into action to bring those zone-seveners through winters – sometimes for many years, if gardeners were sufficiently conscientious (I never was). As for plants rated even less hardy – those could only be saved by bringing them inside for winter, which was always too much of a hassle for me.
When I moved to the Gulf Coast, into a climate where winters usually conform to zone 8b, I expected that all of my struggles keeping plants alive would deal with the hot and humid summers – after all, there were so many more plants that would survive the winters here! It turns out I was wrong. Zone denial is at least as big here as it was in Pennsylvania – probably even bigger. As it turns out, nurseries and gardeners alike seem to assume that we're in the tropics and routinely offer and plant ornamentals and fruit trees that are unlikely to make it through a true zone 8 winter. Worse, in many cases there is no warning of winter tenderness given by nurseries, so I have returned from many a plant-shopping trip to find out that half of my purchases of shrubs and perennials are iffy at best when temperatures drop below 30F. I guess that will add some excitement to my winter gardening, and some suspense in early spring when time comes to see if the plants whose top growth was frost-killed comes back from the roots – but it will likely create holes in the landscape that need to be filled once spring returns. The funny thing is that hardly any of the plants I was used to gardening with up north are on offer at local nurseries – even those that I expect to be perfectly able to hold their own in Houston summers. The vast majority of offerings are (sub)tropicals and annuals; among the perennials on offer, only various salvias, daylilies, some ornamental grasses, and a few composite-flowered species are common to my previous nursery experiences. I may have to resort to mail order, or seeds, to re-establish some old favorites.
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May 19, 2017. And then there were more.
Amazingly quickly, those tadpoles have grown up to become minuscule toads. Or are they frogs after all? The little ones jump better than toads do, but then they have much less weight to send into motion. Of course only a small fraction of the tadpoles have grown to this state. For the most part, we have no idea what happened to the rest. A few got stuck on top of lilypads and perished when their pad-puddles evaporated. Perhaps the fish ate a few? I never witnessed any hunting behavior, but they are cold-blooded sneaky creatures! On the topic of fish – our beloved Suki did not survive. One day I found her at the bottom of the pond, apparently just recently deceased, cause of death unknown. She's fertilizing a sago palm now. We may try a small koi again some day, but for now we're keeping a close eye on our goldfish (whose number has come down by only one, and who have grown quite a bit in the past month).
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Four of the hundreds
April 29, 2017. A multitude of toad babies
A day after the April 19th post, after releasing Ms. Toad into the back yard to join the trilling lads, the night-time serenades suddenly stopped. We guessed at the cause for this sudden silence, but had no way of knowing. Then suddenly yesterday we noticed hundreds of tadpoles in the pond – all throughout, from the bog up high, to the stream, to the main pond itself. By now, the pond has developed some green detritus on many surfaces, so I assume that's what the youngsters are feeding on. And even though I don't know how to tell apart frog and toad tadpoles, I've not seen frogs around here, and a good number of toads, so chances are it's toadpoles that have invaded our pond. Now we're curious to see how many will survive, and how the fish will appreciate their new neighbors. Thus far, they're ignoring each other.
Speaking of fish, it appears that Comet has met an untimely demise. He hasn't been spotted in three days now, while his compatriots are still darting around happily at feeding times. We have no idea what happened.
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Pretty Suki
April 25, 2017. Meet Suki
It's good to have fish. We usually had fish swimming around in our small patio pond in Pennsylvania, but because we never fed them and the pond wasn't filtered (and therefore murky), we didn't see much of them. Not so with our new pond: its fish are more like pets. We feed them, so they come up to the surface and show themselves routinely. And we've named them, too: Ms. koi goes by Suki (short for Yobesuki, although we have no idea what that might mean), the shubunkens are named Donder, Blitzen and Giraffe, and the comets answer to Peggy, Poppy and Comet. The latter are hard to tell apart for the uninitiated, but Lily can do so unwaveringly. She's also the one most likely to spoil them with more food than they need.
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Boy #2
April 19, 2017. Midnight serenade
Well, it took the local toad boys hardly any time at all to find our brand new pond. Last night they started their amazingly loud trills, easily penetrating the sound-insulating qualities of our home to keep Amy awake for a good part of the night. She gave me instructions to find them and bomb them, smoke them out, or otherwise get them to shut up – so when they started up again this evening I ventured out to see if I could find them. That proved fairly easy, even in the dark, since they continued their song even when I got closer. There were at least two guys facing off, at slightly different pitches, both very loud (at close range I felt I might need hearing protection). They clearly like the moving water – one was sitting on a rock at the base of our waterfall, the other just alongside the stream. Even odder, we then found another toad (a girl, most likely) camping out in our dining room. No idea how she got inside, but Ben scooped her up and put her near the pond as well. Perhaps she knows how to quiet those boys down...

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April 15, 2017. And the loser is...
the lawn. As the pond was being built this past week, I took advantage of the extra sod and soil to extend the garden borders along the back fence all the way. Between those new borders and the substantial area taken up by the pond itself, there's a good bit less grass that calls our garden home. Those borders are mostly a blank slate for now – I planted the few trees, vines, and perennials that we had picked up last weekend (including a key lime and an olive) in some of the area, but there's lots of room for more gardening. So I'm getting excited!
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April 14, 2017. The new pond, all finished
After four days of hard work by a three-man crew, our new pond is up and running! The design came out different from what we had envisioned, thanks to the creative approach by the expert installers, but we like the final result, which features a smallish bog filter up high, from which two spillways crash down - one onto a cascade that flows directly into the pond below, the other into a gentle stream flanked by a couple additional pocket bogs that burbles its way to the other side of the pond. The overall flow pattern results in a satisfying sound of crashing water, and three submerged lights provide some drama after sunset. Our pond package included a variety of bog plants as well as two tropical waterlilies ('Colorado' and 'Tina'), which we supplemented with some more marginal plants. We also got some starter goldfish – three comets and three shubunkins, We cheated, and also purchased a small rainbow koi (named Suki), even though our pond isn't quite large enough to be a koi pond. And we were delighted to spot a tadpole in the pond, which must have hitched a ride in one of the waterlily containers. The water is still cloudy with rock dust (so we can't see our fish), and the plants have that plopped-in look for now, but pretty soon everything will meld together. We're hopeful that the pond will incite us to spend more time outside – especially since I took the opportunity this week to use the fill and sod from the pond excavation to build quite a large new planting area along the back fence. Our backyard really feels like a garden now!

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April 13, 2017. Seed-starting revisited
Starting new plants from seed has always been a huge part of my gardening experience, with basement seed operations occurring under light from December through April in our Pennsylvania home. Alas, our Texas home has no basement, and until recently it didn't have much garden area to receive seedlings either – so I've done hardly any seed-starting in the past two years. But two weeks ago, I decided it was time for a modest re-entry into the activity, so I dug this small plot to serve as a seed bed. Aside from vegetable gardening, I've never done much direct-seeding outside, and sure enough, the results from my initial attempt are almost exclusively edible (beans and squash), ornamental plants being no-shows for now. I may have started too late, with temperatures here already into the 80s most days. But I'll keep trying – at least I have a sandbox now!
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Setting the forms that define the perimeter
April 11, 2017. A new pond in progress!
No garden is complete without a water feature. At least, not for our clan, who got used to the sounds of splashing water from our little pond (built for the occasion of our backyard wedding) and our big swimming pond, which came ten years later. That was Pennsylvania, now is Texas – so it was time to introduce our resident birds (the mourning doves found us!) to the joys of backyard water gardening. Even though I built our first pond myself, we decided to go with a professionally installed pond this time around – not only do I worry about my back not being as strong as it once was, I also know that the specialists will do a better job of making everything look just right. Since this is going to be the centerpiece of our smallish garden, just right is certainly what we're looking for. So we found engaged the local experts, and today was the start of the job. The pond will be roughly 6 x 10 ft, freeform shaped, with a filtration bog and waterfall. When it's all done, it will take up quite a swath of real estate! Today's activities got terminated early by all-afternoon thunderstorms, but the morning's progress got us to the point of concrete banks being poured into forms around the perimeter – pretty cool. It should be all done in a few days, so I hope to gush over our new feature in my next post here!
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April 09, 2017. In cold blood
Our Texas plot, built on what was farm fields not too long ago but ravaged by the onslaught of construction equipment and activities and set in a somewhat sterile environment without any established plantings, isn't exactly a hotbed of animal life. Sure, we have fire ants and quite a few varieties of spiders, lawn grubs and even the occasional ladybug. And a few birds have finally found our feeders. But we miss the chipmunks, squirrels, cardinals, nuthatches, juncos, and goldfinches. However, we have one point of compensation: lizards! We never once saw a lizard in our Pennsylvania garden, but here we've had several visits from these cool dudes. We hope to see even more of them as we get some plantings that they can climb and hide in. As for armadillos – I think I'm content knowing they're around here, without seeing their evidence in the backyard!
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March 25, 2017. A modest new rock garden
Back in Pennsylvania, I had gravitated toward the pursuit of rock gardening in recent years. My rock garden grew larger every few years, and much of my seedstarting activity involved attempts to grow finnicky alpines. Pennsylvania is a land of rocks (through-hikers on the Appalachian trail often refer to it as "rocksylvania"), so even though our little rock garden may have been somewhat out of place in the mostly flat expanse of our front yard, it didn't seem out of context in the bigger picture – and nearly all of its rocks were ones I found locally, on the edges of farm fields or in debris piles at construction sites. In my own garden, I couldn't dig very much without hitting a variety of different rocks. Houston? Not so much. I'm more likely to find left-behind pieces of brick in my back yard digs than any significant rocks, and the landscape is so flat that a rock garden with any profile seems oddly incongruent. Out of despair, I allowed my NARGS membership to lapse, and worried that the humid heat would forever doom any further alpine gardening aspirations. But I decided to give it a shot anyway. Unlike my old rock garden, which I at least attempted to give a natural look, my new one is quite obviously human-constructed: I used left-over stones from the neighborhood being built up around us to define rough courses with intervening planting pockets. The soil is still primarily Houston clay, with some compost and sand mixed in. Hardly ideal, but over time I think I'll elevate the garden vertically, filling in with more rocks and better-draining soil. For now, I'm just glad to have any place to stick a few plants. I won't be growing finnicky alpines, either – that would just be a recipe for disappointment. Instead, I put the contents of a few pots of succulent houseplants (aloe, aeonium, gasteria) along with some surviving sedums from one of my hypertufa troughs into a few of the pockets. I'm pretty sure I'll find some plants that don't mind the conditions – maybe some penstemons, some alliums, anything not too prima-donna. So I think it's time to renew my NARGS membership...

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March 20, 2017. Hope springs eternal (even in Houston!)
Happy New Year! Oops, is it really late March? I guess I have been severely delinquent for many months now, but I expect to be posting here a good bit more frequently now. It's a new growing season in a new house in a new part of the country, and the time for "wait and see" has come and gone: we gotta build a garden!
Back in the fall, we visited a few nurseries and picked up plants that were mostly unfamiliar to us – tender perennials, perhaps so tender that their survival even in our current zone 8B garden was dubious. All part of the learning curve.
When the first harder freeze arrived in early January (a night with sustained temperatures into the mid-20s – no big deal in our previous garden, but a rather significant event here), our new plantings, which had been going strong until then, collectively took a hit. Our nice new lemon tree was toast (we replaced it with a couple of satsuma oranges, which are much hardier), and the tropical foliage plants were all killed to the ground, except for the sago palm, which despite its label which suggested any frost would kill it stayed brilliant green. Fast forward a couple months, and most of those tropicals are starting to reappear – the tropical milkweed, the firecracker plant, and the variegated ginger all popped up with new growth by mid-February. But the cordylines seemed definitely dead – so much so that I planted a couple of (equally red) pennisetums in their place. So I was tickled to see that they too ultimately survived, pushing up a few tentative blades from where their stalks died. I have no idea how quickly they will grow to a reasonable size, but it's good to know that even in Houston, late winter and spring is a season of eagerly anticipating regrowth. It gives me new energy to tackle the project ahead of me: creating a new garden that will invite us outside, hopefully even in the heat of Houston's summer.

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our blank slate
October 01, 2016. The blank slate
Finally, the Houston summer appears to be receding. We've had some delightfully cool mornings, and even the afternoons have been pleasant, with temperatures reaching only into the mid-80s. So it is now time to start exploring the joys of gardening on the Gulf Coast. Over the past few months, Amy and I have visited a few local nurseries, and have been perplexed by the variety of plant offerings, almost all unfamiliar (or familiar only from gardening magazines) – very little overlap with our Pennsylvania perennial plant palette. Our canvas is quite different as well – compared to the wide open back yard we were accustomed to, the regimented, fenced-in space we see out our back windows now seems restricted. It's a decent-size yard, by new Houston-area subdivision standards, and the St-Augustine-grass lawn comes with a sprinkler system, a luxury we didn't enjoy up North. But where to begin? The front yard is off limits – the homeowners association has placed such extreme limits on what is and isn't allowed there, we're likely to leave the anemic landscaping put in by the builder as is for now, and focus on the back. And there, we can choose from a smorgasbord of new subtropical plantings. Today, we set our first steps towards a garden that's our own – selecting both familiar plants (a hydrangea and a Sky Pencil holly) and new ones (a lemon tree! a sago palm!) in our first Texas plant shopping spree. Just to get the juices flowing – the few plants we bought won't make a dent in St. Augustine's domain. But it's a start to establishing our new garden. I hope to be writing updates more frequently from now on.
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Multi-eyed jumper
September 10, 2016. Greetings from Texas
Well, it was only a matter of time before our new abode in Texas would present its first garden-related photographic opportunity. Actually, there had been one before, involving an anole lizard, but I neglected to put that one up on this site, so you get the second one: a twinflagged jumping spider (Anasaitis canosa) that was happily exploring our kitchen counter. He outwitted the protections put in place by the extermination company: we've been convinced that it is downright impossible to do without routine extermination services in these parts, and so far we've given in to the local trend. But our little guest apparently found a way around those defenses. Which is reassuring, to some extent: while I certainly would prefer not to encounter brown recluse or black widow spiders, I'm not keen on a plot of land devoid of insect life. Hopefully we'll find a happy medium.
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Cotinus 'Grace' doing the Truffula Dance
May 27, 2016. Last time at the Lush Gardens
I'm back at my home for the past twenty years, the one whose gardens are described on this website. Since I moved to Houston four months ago, I've been back just a few times, to share some time with my family, who won't be moving till summer. This Memorial Day visit will likely be my last one, so it's a bittersweet occasion – I look outside and see the tree-filled half acre that was the source of so much joy, anticipation, and a good helping of frustration through most of my adult life. It's good to see how it all works together, even though it is hardly a well manicured garden. From the sun-drenched garden (mostly lawn) where many years ago Amy and I got married on a brand-new patio and were surrounded by our wedding guests in a big happy tent, the Lush Gardens have undergone many transformations, to where now big trees and a big pond dominate the space, one that feels wonderfully established. I hope its new owners will similarly find satisfaction in the garden, even if they don't see themselves as gardeners yet. The birds and butterflies that have made their homes here will certainly serve as inspiration and a reminder of the importance of keeping nature around us.
This weekend's activities around the garden are half reconnection, half making sure we leave everything in a presentable state for those who come after us. And of course, the garden, which has been maintained mostly by Amy this spring, threw some surprises at me. Such as the funky state of the 'Grace' smoketree, resembling Dr. Seuss's truffula trees after their partial winter survival. I normally cut it back fairly low to the ground in early spring, but this year it was allowed to do its own thing without intervention, leading to a comical appearance (you'll have to take my word for it, I admit the photo isn't particularly convincing).
My next post, whenever it happens, will likely talk about our new garden in Houston – which will feel quite the opposite of established, but will offer a blank slate not unlike the one I faced twenty years ago here in Pennsylvania. Another cycle, coming right up!
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Our new homesite at Mango Knoll Court
March 20, 2016. Exit Pennsylvania
After twenty years of tending our Pennsylvania garden, it's time to say goodbye. I moved to Texas this winter for a new job; Amy and the kids will be following me down in July. We'll all miss our "Lush Gardens", where we planted our first trees, watched the kids grow up (as well as the trees we planted for them when they were born), and engaged in grand projects such as our swimming pond. I'll miss the plant sales I used to put on, and the thousands of seedlings I would start in the basement every winter (no basements in Texas!). So I hope that whoever comes to live in our home after us appreciates (or at least tolerates) some of our garden features. Many dozens of trees and hundreds of perennials are hoping for life after Rob!
Of course Texas will offer its own horticultural opportunities, albeit on a smaller scale. Contrary to the notion that everything is bigger in Texas, lot sizes in new communities are definitely not! We decided to build in a brand new development called Harvest Green, which focuses on a farming and gardening theme. There will be lots of green around us, but the fenced-in lot (the photo here shows what it looks like in its pre-construction stage) is several times smaller than what we're used to. That means we'll have several new frontiers: Gulf Coast gardening (heat, humidity, and bugs, along with gumbo soil!) and square foot gardening (which might be an interesting challenge). With all that, I sincerely hope that there is a Rob's Plants - Texas Edition on the horizon – but until we're settled and can start tending the new garden, the site will stay Pennsylvania-centric, and updates will be sporadic for now.
Speaking of Pennsylvania – there's an exciting new development in the Lehigh Valley! Thanks to a handful of enthusiastic volunteers, there is now a LV chapter of Plant a Row For the Hungry. They are in startup mode right now, and very much looking for additional participants. I'd give more details here, but their own website does them much more justice than I could. Please consider planting a row of edibles in your garden this year to support this worthwhile initiative!
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