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Garden journal


Copper Canyon daisy in full bloom
January 01, 2019. A new year
2019 has arrived! Here in Houston, the weather has been mild through the holidays. No lack of rain (you can stop now, please), but also no new freezes since one that arrived early on, way back in November. So everything that survived that first cold snap is still alive and often thriving. So much so that I decided to put together a page showing off what's in bloom around our garden this New Year's day. All in all, not bad for a time of year when Pennsylvania's gardens offer little besides some holly berries, sweeping evergreens, and pretty bark – for those willing to brave the elements. I'm not sure it's enough of a trade-off for the unrelenting heat and humidity we endure down here in the summers, but I'll gladly partake of the good times while they last. I look forward to the spring bulbs, which should be bursting forth soon, and foresee a few more "enhancement projects" on the horizon this year. Wishing you a happy New Year from our garden to yours!

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December 25, 2018. On the real day of Christmas, my True Love gave to me...
A green man under the tree! Every year for very long now, I've asked, as part of my wish list (which is frustratingly short and awkward for my loved ones) for "substantial" items of garden art. Not that I mind the small-scale funky pieces that I've been blessed with on many father's days – those sheet-metal dinosaurs and lizards, voluptuous stone beauties, and comical resin mice are very much a part of the garden experience, peeking out from here or there as you walk by. But you have to get up close to notice them, and they are prone to being crowded out by the natural denizens of the borders. It's good to have something bolder to add to the mix, something that can be admired from a distance. So I had high hopes for the biggest box in my pile of presents to unwrap – and I was not disappointed. The green man is a recurring motif in garden illustrations and horticultural art, and I'm proud to now have my own on display: a leafy face with a benevolent smile, all decked out in verdigris green, solemnly gazing from his perch on the back fence, greeting us as we step out of the back door into the garden. Perhaps he'll even keep watch over our mischievous kitten, who has recently learned the art of escaping into the garden and getting into trouble. Thanks Amy!
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So soggy
December 09, 2018. Floodwaters
Just a few weeks after completing the border construction cum civil engineering project, its drainage properties were tested by a storm system that dumped about six inches of rain over the course of about a day. Sure enough, all the water from the back yard and the downspouts was trying to exit via the corner of the yard that is new borderized. The photo may not be all that clear, but you may see that a few puddles formed in the lawn and the edge of the border, because the drainage path wasn't altogether level – but on the whole the concept was successful, with the rainwater taking the path of least resistance across the pavers and underneath the fence. When things dried up a bit, I adjusted the positions of the pavers a bit, so next time there should be even less rainwater backup.
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The last bit of left fence border completed
November 24, 2018. Lawn - fence separation project completed
Yippee! It's taken me a little over two years, but I can declare (near) victory: the intersection between fence and lawn is just about eliminated, with a healthy width of border separating the two along the entire fenceline except for a short section in a utility area on the right where there isn't enough room to do so. Up till a week ago, the biggest stretch where lawn and fence met was along the fence separating our yard from the neighbors to the left. In previous projects, I had managed to wrap the ever-extending border around from the back fence to more than half-way along the left fence – but the last bit involved somewhat of a problem area: the awkward corner between the left and front fence, which I'd used as a dumping-ground for left-over sod from various earlier projects. It also included a lone Virginia pine planted right in the lawn. All of that made for difficult mowing and poor aesthetics, so it was about time I tackled it. I decided to create a generous sweeping border that included the pine and extended the gently curving left fence border.
A new aspect to this project, compared to earlier border construction efforts, was that it featured a civil engineering component: Here in the Houston area, all back yards are sloped to create a swale for rainfall (including the water gushing from the downspouts) to find its way out to the street in front of the house and ultimately to a storm drain. We already knew the pitfalls of interrupting the swale from our pond installation a couple years ago: a soppy puddle forms in the lawn to the left of the pond after every significant rainstorm, because the water cannot run off to the right. With the current project, the consequences of messing with the swale would be worse, because well over half the water falling on our property exits at the lowest point right at the corner of the new border. Whenever I construct a new border, I make sure to build up, since poor drainage is hazardous to plant health during Houston's soggy seasons. But building a fully elevated border here would have been ill advised, sure to create a deep puddle in the lawn, and a perpetual source of soil erosion and mulch wash-away. So in this case, I elevated nearly all of the border, but created a diagonal spillway out to the corner with concrete pavers. It doesn't look particularly attractive right now, but I bet that with some billowy plants alongside, it will be hardly noticeable.
I had to think about the below-ground as well: my method of border construction involves excavating about a shovel blade's height into the compacted clay soil and replacing it with a layer of stripped sod and a crumblier, organic-amended soil mixture. Concerned that the bottom of my border, resembling a bathtub with nearly impervious walls and bottom, would fill up with water after every drenching rainstorm we get, I wanted to provide a path for water to flow outward down below as well. So I replaced the soil underneath the spillway with a generous vein of sand, extending to just the other side of the fence, where the ground slopes significantly down to the street level.
I don't know yet if any of this will work as intended, but I'll be paying attention after the next monsoon, and can make adjustments at least to the visible bits afterwards. I don't yet have much plant material to fill the new borders – but I doubt that will be a problem come spring!
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I think I can, I think I can...
October 27, 2018. Black swallowtail hatchling
Fall seems to be the prime butterfly season here in the Houston area, with monarchs paying visits along their migration path (and leaving their offspring on our milkweed plants), gulf fritillaries darting among the flowers, and a variety of skippers flitting about. Swallowtails visit too, but I seldom see them up close – so I was happy to encounter one today in the early evening, struggling to steady itself among some ornamental grass blades. Its wings had not completely unfurled yet, so it mostly just flapped around, waiting for the moment it could fly away. By looking at some other pictures I've taken through the years, I confirmed that this was a black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). I was also reminded that its host plants are in the carrot and dill family (the umbellifers), and I really don't think I have any of those around the area where I found this hatchling. Still, I'll be looking around tomorrow to see if I can find any caterpillars around. For pictures of a fully fledged black swallowtail, see my flutters page
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Just after replanting - everything's still a bit messy
October 21, 2018. Rock garden expansion part deux
As I predicted in my journal post last year, it wouldn't be long before the rock garden would see another expansion. And sure enough, this weekend was that time. Much has happened between that post a year ago and now: unhoustonly cold weather struck in January, setting back (or outright killing) many of the more tender plants in the rock garden; a general garden expansion (a.k.a. lawn eradication effort) in spring transformed the rock garden from an area bordered by lawn to an island within a larger border (with adjacent xeric nursery area); and that border became overgrown with self-seeding salvias and talinums, largely hiding the rockery from view. Meanwhile, bermudagrass from the behind-the-fence neighbors' yard kept invading the garden. It was time for the rock garden, which had been built up only slightly from the surrounding area, to gain some significant elevation, and expand forward in doing so. Since the rock garden backs into a fence (not a proper support for soil), the first step was building a low wall using cinderblocks to serve as a backstop and bermudagrass barrier. Next, a surprising amount of sandy soil was required, to build up to the top of the wall and gently slope downward toward the enclosing border. Finally, the assortment of stone (mostly leftover pieces from construction stonework in our neighborhood) was arranged to define planting pockets and outline the general perimeter of the area, before replanting the plants salvaged from the area before the project started. A weekend's worth of work, well spent – now I have a place to plant those agave, yucca, and rain lily seedlings that have been waiting in pots all year. I wouldn't mind if this winter were milder, so that even the tender tenants have a chance to come into their own next year...
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A view of the mid-section of our back fence border, with the pond at right
October 14, 2018. Tapestry
Although I've not posted much this year, the garden has done quite nicely. I guess that's to be expected, in the second year after establishing most of the border areas: perennials and shrubs grow up and fill in, and everything billows together. My goal of seeing as little of the back fence as possible is progressing just fine, with various climbers conquering their trellises and the taller shrubs further obscuring the privacy slatwork. We've been fortunate to see hummingbirds quite a bit this year (more than we ever did in Pennsylvania), who seem to enjoy the continuous smorgasbord, as do the butterflies. I'm quite enamored of this look, although it isn't always the look Amy would go for – "it's just like Allentown!", she sometimes exclaims, referring to the way everything would always grow together in our previous garden. Establishing a garden anew meant having many plants spaced neatly apart in their first year, each one well delineated, perfect for admiring every specimen. The spaces have now disappeared, as has the view to most of the mulch in between – and many plants weave together in a somewhat unruly fashion. I do agree that the garden needs frequent editing, and have cut back or eliminated some of the more vigorous participants in the tapestry in recent weeks. But I think the smooshed look is here to stay: I'd hate to disappoint our hummers!

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September 15, 2018. A time for mushrooms
Yes, it's been a while since I posted here. Between vacations and the heat of summer, gardening took a bit of a back seat. Besides venturing out to harvest figs (yum!), keep the bermudagrass from invading the borders, and add water to the pond during the many weeks of hot dry weather, I pretty much left the garden to its own resorts, enjoying the colors without spending too much time up close. In recent weeks, I've not had to add to the pond – the weather has turned decidedly soggy, and with the change in weather, the mushrooms have proliferated. The underground fungi were clearly waiting patiently for the moisture to arrive, and wasted no time when it did – the yard is full of them! The one pictured here was a particularly large and fancy specimen (I took that photo yesterday – by today, it was three times as big around and flat-topped). As with nearly all mushrooms, I have no idea what its identity is. Another feature of recent weeks has been the nearly constant visits by hummingbirds. In Pennsylvania, I considered myself lucky if I spotted hummers a couple times a year, but here they are regulars, now that they have found the garden. Most of my neighbors have barely any flowering plants, so I'm glad they persisted along their path to find our nectar supply. Now if only the mosquitoes would lay off a bit, I might find myself out gardening a little more frequently as the weather gets (just a little bit) cooler.
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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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