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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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Last modified: April 25, 2017
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