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wheeeee!
June 17, 2018. The confluence of interests
Amy and the kids were good to me this Father's Day, presenting me with an assortment of colorfully painted sheet-metal art objects – a cat, some lizards, a grasshopper, and a dinosaur – all of which have found their way to various places around the backyard. But the most visible new piece of garden art (mostly because it is elevated above the rest) is the bicycle-on-a-stick, with spinning wheels and everything. A very suitable gift indeed, because it combines my two favorite outdoor pursuits: gardening and cycling.
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June 16, 2018. Odd endive
As a Dutchman, I hanker from time to time for some good old "andijvie stamppot", a dish in which raw endive is mashed with boiled potatoes and cubed bacon bits – yum! It's been a long time since I've had that dish - leafy endive isn't exactly a staple in the grocery stores. I grew it once or twice in Pennsylvania, but I'm afraid that my attempt to grow some out here in subtropical Houston was less than successful. I set out my seedlings in early spring, but it was already too warm – so I contented myself with watching them bolt to see what they'd do. And I was not disappointed: apparently endive has a weird growth habit once it does its thing, making odd hollow-tubular large stems amid a maze of curvy-twiggy smaller ones – lined with misshapen leaves and a few chicory-like purple-blue flowers thrown in for color interest. I don't think I'll repeat the experiment, but it fits squarely in the "you gotta try everything once" category.
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May 28, 2018. Sunflower felled
A few thunderstorms and a Texas-size downpour later, the twelve-foot height of the majestic annual is transformed to an equal horizontal extent. Still cheerily blooming up a storm, but I'm afraid it'll have to go sometime soon. But not to worry – thanks to bird seed, there are other sunflowers growing around the garden.

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A growth spurt even more impressive than that of my teen-age son!
May 07, 2018. Jack and the sunflower
Texas birds are messy eaters. At least that's how I assume the sunflower that volunteered in our back fence border came about. I allowed it to grow, even though it's in kind of an awkward place. By now it has zoomed up to a height of about 9 feet, and is starting to bloom. No massive sunflower heads on this one – it looks like the flowers will come in more modest sizes, but should still be cheerful. At least as long as I allow it to persist; I'm getting a little concerned about the small Texas ebony tree that's struggling for light in its immediate vicinity, and I doubt the red yucca is particularly happy about its neighbor either. But for a little while longer, I'll watch just how high this one will climb.
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May 05, 2018. The case of the mysterious root crop
In creating the new garden border described in an earlier post this year, I followed the method I've adopted for many years, and adapted to Houston gardening in the past two years: I strip the sod off the area of the new border and set it aside; then I dig the soil out to a depth of about a shovel-and-a-half – deep enough that I can bury the sod without fear of the grass living on; after laying the sod back in the excavated area, I backfill with the soil that I dug up, amended with an organic material, such as compost or bagged topsoil mixes. This results in a somewhat raised bed, with a deep layer of soil that's broken up well enough to no longer resemble the barren native clay. In larger projects, such as the recent expansion, I also throw in other organic materials at the bottom of the trench: prunings and other garden debris that will slowly decompose to feed the soil. Often, these extra fillers include whatever happens to be brewing in our compost bin: our garden and kitchen doesn't generate enough compostable material (and not in that perfect ratio) to ever yield a crumbly "black gold" compost ("black stringy mess" is a better description), so I usually find ways to bury the material where its nutrients and organic matter can improve the soil, but where its appearance and fragrance won't distract from garden enjoyment. These big projects are just the ticket, and so it was earlier this year: everything in the compost bin went straight into the hole. Gone forever! Or so I thought. Imagine my surprise when, many weeks later, a potato plant pops up in the corner of the border where I dumped the compost. That baby grew upwards quite a bit to find light! Once it did, it wasted no time sending out exuberant foliage, somewhat infringing on the space of neighboring Salvia uliginosa and Lemon strawflower. I admire its can-do attitude, and wonder about its ability to provide for our family, so I'm planning to leave this sturdy solanum in place. Potato gardening in Texas, a new venture!

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April flowers
April 30, 2018. This must be a mistake
Mums bloom in fall, right? That's not only what my own experience tells me, but also what any gardening magazine or book says. Turns out that conventional wisdom does not apply to Texas mums – they bloom in both spring and fall. That's kind of cool.
For a season in which all manner of plants come into bloom, I haven't posted here much. To be sure, I've added plenty of pictures and observations to my plant portrait pages, but there didn't seem to be any one surprise or insight that warranted a journal post. So it's the lowly mum that breaks the dry spell. Speaking of which – we may need to turn on our timed sprinkler system soon: it's getting hot in Houston, and without rain in the past week, rather dry.
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Ravaging the poor milkweed
March 29, 2018. Early monarchy
Wow, the monarch butterflies have already arrived – and the next generation is underway! So far, I spotted just a single monarch and a yellow-marked swallowtail of some sort (flying too far overhead to make out its exact species), and am looking forward to the invasion of other butterflies as the season progresses. We incorporated quite a few plants that can serve as larval hosts to various species in our garden last year (pipe vines, passionflowers, persimmon, senna, and others), so our hopes are high. Meanwhile, we'll be watching these early caterpillars do their thing. Crazy, it seems like yesterday that we were watching the late-season butterflies emerge from their chrysales. Still waiting for the birds to show up – their variety is oddly small is our neighborhood, I'm hoping that they just haven't quite found the right gardens yet.
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March 25, 2018. Ready for more plants
The border enlargement that I talked about in early March took the better part of two weeks to complete, but has now yielded a nice new garden area, freshly mulched, ready to accept new plants. Another nursery trip in the near future? Perhaps, but I also need to be thinking about the seedlings growing on on our patio, and some plants in other garden areas that are large enough to be divided. With some imagination, you can see the potential of this stretch of ex-lawn: the live oak and the Arizona cypress for bigger bones towards the background, the magnolia that instigated the whole operation as an anchoring smaller tree, and a rock garden that will likely see some expansion as my various drought-loving seedlings grow into themselves. All bordered by the pond with its clattering waterfall, and fence that will hopefully be covered in climbers before too long. Will the rest of the grass in this part of the garden survive? Only time will tell...

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south-fence nursery area
March 17, 2018. A place to stick my seedlings
Back in Pennsylvania, I grew thousands of seedlings every year. I had a whole system going, from starting, to growing on under lights in the basement, to progressively hardening off. And after that, most seedlings would go into our orchard nursery area, segmented into sections that were sunnier and shadier, some with very good drainage, others retaining more moisture. Most seedlings would spend the first year of their life out there, before getting planted out in the garden proper, or going into my annual plant sale.
Here in Texas, I skipped a year of seed-starting, but this year I'm back at it. Not nearly at the same scale as before, mind you – but I'll still have plenty of seedlings that will need a first home, and so I scrambled this past week to prepare a couple of suitable places. For most general-purpose growing-on, I widened a strip of border along our south fence that I had dug last year but that was really too narrow to do much of anything with. Now (see photo) it is at least big enough to hold a good number of seedlings – you may be able to spot the first few in the middle (milkweed, potentilla, and Illinois bundleflower). This area gets afternoon shade from the fence for now, but in mid-summer, upright structures don't cast much shade this far south, so I may need to rig up some kind of shade structure to provide those tender seedlings some relief. For the drought-tolerant set that insists on excellent drainage, I prepared a different nursery area, this one immediately adjacent to the rock garden, raised above the surrounding border, and filled with a gravelly soil mix. It will house the many agave species I'm trying from seed this year, along with some succulents and other xeriscape-worthy plants. I'm anticipating I'll lose many of my seedlings to nature's whims, just as I did in Pennsylvania – but at least I'm trying to give them a good start!
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'Jane' in her new position, surrounded by earth-moving activity
March 04, 2018. Beware of nursery runs
It was a lovely early-spring day, so when Amy suggested we swing by a local nursery, "just to look around, maybe pick up a plant or two", I jumped at the opportunity. But since moving to Texas, these nursery trips have become treacherous events: we seldom walk away spending less than a hundred bucks, and so it was this time. We stuffed the trunk of the car with quite a few perennials and small shrubs, but the main piece was a 'Jane' magnolia, purchased for Lily as a replacement for the 'Elizabeth' magnolia we left behind in Pennsylvania. Of course Lily got to pick where the new tree should go – and when she decided north of the pond was just right, that meant new plans had to be developed and put into action. Planting trees in the middle of bermudagrass would never do, so a significant enlargement of the border areas to the right of our pond was obviously in order. And so another back-breaking project started. The photo at right shows it in its early phase, with the new extent of the border defined by the line stripped of sod. The same thing happened after visiting a native plant nursery last October – so I should know by now how dangerous such undertakings are...
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February 25, 2018. Backyard herb garden
Our bermudagrass lawn looks dead this time of year – especially since the hard freeze in January, the top growth is uniformly tan, no green in sight. Which makes the other plants, mostly weeds, that grow in our lawn that much more conspicuous. Surprisingly, that includes quite a few cilantro plants. I didn't realize quite how hardy they are! In Pennsylvania, they didn't emerge until early spring, but these have been going since late fall. I think they grew from some coriander seeds that I threw out across the border adjoining our bedroom, where we grow several herbs. If so, I missed rather wildly. In any case, I don't mind the incongruous look, and enjoy the fragrance. At this time, many of the herbaceous and woody perennials that ditched their top growth in the big freeze are deciding whether to return from the base. I don't hold out much hope for some of them, but many others are showing signs of life. For them, I've made the T-shirt icon I promised in a previous post: . It's already on display at several pages here, including those for lantana, Texas persimmon, and Anacacho orchid. I hope to be adding it to many more in the near future.
Meanwhile, I'm engaged in starting seeds indoors, a return to an old favorite activity from which I had to take a break for a few years. A shipment from the NARGS seed exchange in late January jolted me back into action – so the downstairs guest room is now home to a variety of seedlings. Many of them are experiments: I haven't seen these species on offer at local nurseries, and don't know whether they stand a chance in our climate. That's nothing new: in Pennsylvania, a large fraction of my seedlings didn't survive a year in the garden either – but it's fun to try. So look for notes on newly started and planted varieties again this year.
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Showing off our masonry skills – or lack thereof
February 03, 2018. Compost bins revisited
Ah, a smaller garden, I thought. I won't need full compost bins, I'll just get one of those nifty tumblers! And so I did, about a year ago: I ordered a boxy black plastic unit online, spent a couple hours assembling it, and eagerly awaited my supply of gardener's black gold. But it never materialized. I guess that some people manage to coax crumbly compost out of one of those devices, but I never got more than half-decomposed stringy mess. Midway through summer, I emptied it out into the bottom of one of the new garden borders I was preparing, and started afresh – with much the same results. It was an eyesore anyway, with no good place to put it. So I gave up on the concept, and returned to what I know: constructed compost bins. I built myself a two-bin system back in Allentown, when bricks were readily available from construction debris piles in my then newly built neighborhood, and guess what: we're in a new neighborhood again, with lots of orphaned bricks laying around. So I selected a spot in the utility part of the side yard, next to the air conditioning units, put down a pad of concrete pavers, and set to making another set of bins. This time with the help of my enterprising son Ben, who was eager to practice the brick-laying skills he had picked up in summer camps at the local technical institute. Alas, both his skills and mine were a bit lacking (and bricks used in home construction have gotten a lot narrower in the 20 intervening years), so the final product is a bit mortar-oozy, and the brick walls a bit wavy. But who cares? It's a fine place for making compost. The bins are smaller than the ones I built in Allentown (after all, it's still a smaller garden), but large enough to allow the critical mass of organic material to come together for some decomposition magic – or so I hope. And boy, is there a lot of material up for grabs in the garden: last month's freeze killed at least the top growth of more than half the garden plantings, so those bins had better start working pronto!
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Lifeless key lime tree
January 22, 2018. Untexasly cold
After a freeze in January 2017 killed our newly planted lemon tree, we were told that this was a freak freeze – most years it doesn't get nearly as cold, or for as long. I think it got down to 24 degrees Fahrenheit that time, for about 8 hours. Well – continuing along the trajectory of freak weather that's come our way since I moved to the Lone Star state (also including three major floods, two in 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017), we had another whopper of a freeze in mid-January. Temperatures stayed at or below freezing for two full days and nights (they closed schools and businesses those days), and remained in the teens for hours overnight. So all those zone-9 plants I had optimistically purchased at local nurseries, expecting a few mild winters to make up for last one: they're dead. The lemon tree we got as a replacement for last year's deceased one is OK: it stayed in a pot, and was brought indoors. The mango also came indoors, but it was already too late: it looks decidedly lifeless. And the key lime tree that was too big to stay in a pot is a goner. For many other plantings, I'll have to wait till mid-spring to see if they show any signs of returning from the roots. But I think my colleague had it right when he said the nurseries would have yet another banner year in 2018. And no doubt, they'll keep on selling the same plants that are just a little too tender to survive these arctic incursions. Me? I'll probably try some of those again – but I'll be on the lookout for more examples of that rare breed of plant that can deal both with the steamy summers and the occasionally severe winter nights. The borderline ones that survived will earn a badge of honor – I think I'll mark their portrait pages here with a T-shirt saying "I survived the freeze of 2018". Still learning the ropes in this crazy state...
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Last modified: June 17, 2018
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