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Garden journal - all of 2021

 

Surveying the scene, days after the freeze ended
March 20, 2021. Texas megafreeze
Everything is bigger in Texas. So when a record cold snap hits, it may not reach temperatures nearly as cold as those further north – but you can be assured that it will cause bigger chaos! And so it happened, about a month ago, that a stretch of six days of freezing temperatures, with lows dipping down to 12°F and staying there for much longer than the usual cold snaps the Gulf Coast climate throws at us, caused widespread power and water outages, with burst pipes and busted utility systems everywhere. For a couple of weeks, all the focus was on getting power and water back, and trying to find food staples on the marauded grocery store shelves – but when everyday life returned to mostly normal, attentions turned to the outdoor landscape. And boy, was it ever ravaged! Faithful readers may remember my post about the January 2018 freeze, which was also quite destructive for gardeners, and billed as a freak once-in-a-generation event. Well, let's just say that January was positively mild compared to last month's arctic dip. Many plants that breezed through winter 2018 with no or minimal damage are definitely dead this time around. It's still to early to compile a full list of the survivors and the deceased; the picture here of the immediate aftermath still showed some hopeful green colors on the olive tree (left) and satsuma orange (right), but in the weeks since then the prognosis for those has turned dire (and satsumas are supposed to be among the hardiest citrus). As I reach conclusions on individual plants, I'll mark my plant portraits with badges, to complement the ones I used for 2018. Already on the pushing up the daisies list: Eucalypus cinerea and citriodora; the former had survived the earlier freeze, while the latter was planted later but had zoomed up to become the tallest living thing in our section of the neighborhood. Both met with a chainsaw today. I'm still holding out hope for many others, but I'm pretty sure I'll be hitting the nurseries to fill many empty spots this year!
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March 30, 2021. Garden cleanup
Since my last post, it's become a lot clearer what's going to survive and what's dead as a doornail in the garden. So my time outside recently has been spent hacking down the latter, and feeding it to my electric shredder (which has been happy with all the attention it's been getting lately). As you can see, not much survived in the back fence border. The shrubs and trees that are still standing are, from left to right:
  • The figs (both leafed out prolifically after the freeze)
  • Our olive, which shows no sign of life at all but whose limbs are still supple, giving me a sliver of hope for its survival
  • The orchid tree, which presented new growth soon after the storm
  • Our trusty thryallis, whose smaller twigs were all killed, but which started putting out some leaves along the bigger branches
  • And finally, one of our satsumas. Both (the other isn't in the photo) are almost certainly dead, but I've been holding out on chopping them

A few others look like they'll spring up from the roots (the Cape honeysuckle, the pomegranate, and various non-woody perennials). So by summer's end, the border will likely regain a much lusher look, but for now we're lookin' at a whole lotta fence – and it will be a while before we're back to the coveted invisible fence look.
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Fresh new growth among aborted flowerbuds, early april
April 10, 2021. Huisache revival
Among the trees that I thought I lost in the big freeze was our trusty huisache, which appeared completely devoid of life in late March, after many other shrubs and trees had started to show signs of regrowth. Its apparent demise surprised me, because I've seen well-established specimens growing as rural roadside trees – but still, its twigs were clearly dead and with every passing week my hope for its return diminished. Until, in the final days of March, I saw a single sprig of new growth on a small branch low on the tree, just below where the huisache girdlers had killed a main upright. I started paying closer attention, and in the following days, I found a few more tentative sprigs, mostly low on the main trunk. I knew the tree was alive, but would it require major surgery, with large parts sacrificed to allow some lower growth to survive? It turned out that this would not be necessary – by the second week of April, most of the main branches of the tree were showing fresh leaves even along their smaller branchlets. The smallest twigs were indeed dead, and any flowering it had planned to do was rudely nipped in the bud. But our huisache, she's alive, and I look forward to the return of the yellow puffballs next spring – assuming we don't get a repeat of that freak freeze.
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Regrowth from the roots of our coral bean (Erythrina bidwillii)
April 24, 2021. Documenting tender plant hardiness
Having gardened through two freak freezes in Texas now, I'm getting a feel for what does and what doesn't survive when arctic blasts descend upon the Gulf Coast. I'm still watching for signs of life on a few plants (I just noticed the regrowth on the coral bean in the photo today), but the picture is getting clear now, more than two months after winter storm Uri passed through. So I decided to put up an overview of somewhat tender plants that did and didn't make it this time around – noting also which ones survived the previous freeze in 2018 but not this year's event. Survival depends on many things – our lemon tree's survival, compared to the demise of the nominally much hardier satsuma oranges, was mostly because the former was smaller and easier to protect with mulch and a blanket. So don't take the list as a great reference as to which plants are hardier than others – just a snapshot of what happened in a particular garden. For many species, details of just how the plants fared (from no damage at all, to top growth kill followed by regrowth from base or from the roots, to outright death) can be found on the individual plant portraits. I hope that's at least somewhat helpful to someone...
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Zephyranthes dichromantha blooming enthusiastically after the rain
May 06, 2021. Cheerful rain lilies
We had Texas-sized rainfall last weekend, so, right on cue, the rain lilies did their thing this past week, sending up lots of their white, yellow, and pink flowers. I've had a thing for rain lilies (which were tender in Pennsylvania) ever since moving down here, and have accumulated quite a few varieties through the NARGS seed exchanges in the past few years. Among them, Z. dichromantha, pictured here with its cheerful yellow flowers and pink buds/faded flowers, is definitely one of my favorites. It is among the earliest to bloom in spring, and flowers more frequently than any other rain lily I grow. As the clumps are maturing, the flower display is also getting more impactful, with dozens of individual flowers contributing to the display. One of these days, I promise, I'll put together a page dedicated to the rain lilies...

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The cruel fate of almond verbena's young growth
May 30, 2021. A one-two punch
Our poor almond verbena can't catch a break this year. First, it was killed to the ground by winter storm Uri in February. Happily, new growth appeared, in the form of water sprouts from right at the base within too long, and our little tree grew amazingly fast after that, reaching a height of four feet and even starting to bloom by late May. In the process of getting there, several of the weaker sprouts had toppled over, but it was minor damage compared to the healthy growth of all the other uprights. Alas, the demise of the weaklings turned out to be an early warning sign... A freaky night-time thunderstorm blew through a few days ago – the kind whose lightning seems to nearly constantly light up the garden, with winds strong enough to buffet even robust trees like our live oaks. In the aftermath, I found that all of the uprights of our almond verbena had unceremoniously toppled to the ground, their attachment to the woody base insufficiently strong to take the storm's beating. The fallen sprouts, though doomed in the long run, are still alive, so I've left parts of them in place to feed the root system while the plant figures out how to put out some less-fragile new growth; I may need to help it with some temporary supports. Several other plants likewise took a hit from the storm: both our hardy tapioca and our Virginia pine found they couldn't stay upright when faced with the combination of soggy soil (from a couple weeks of very watery weather) and the high wind. They'll need some support too, for sure. As for the tall sunflower that grew from a bird-feeder dropseed – I'm afraid I'll have to lop that one. But no worries – there are more of those coming.
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A well-hydrated work site
June 07, 2021. When it rains, it pours
Ah, Texas. You never know what's coming your way, weather-wise. Last weekend I decided it might be nice to expand the garden border in front of our rock garden, and started the project by stripping the sod from the area and getting the digging process underway. My method of border construction is laborious, and involves digging at least a shovel-depth below the base (which is already lower than the lawn because of the stripped sod), so that I can bury that whole pile of bermudagrass without risking it coming back up to invade the new border. Plus, of course, I like the loose soil, with some organic matter added. So the worksite always gets messy, with piles of sod, mountains of dug soil, and a traveling pit where I'm actively digging. After a few hours of work the first day, the rains started – and didn't let up for most of the week. So those pits became ponds (Amy was hopeful they were the prelude to her long-sought-after swimming pool). Since our clay soil doesn't drain too well, and we'd already had plenty of rain in the weeks prior, the water stuck around for quite a while, but finally, by the next weekend, I could restart the project. In my next post, I hope to show the new garden area.
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June 19, 2021. Presenting the rock garden zone
Out of the mud, a new extension of our back yard garden borders was created. The photo here shows it just before plants were added to the new area; the almond verbena was previously surrounded by lawn, and is now in the center of the area I'm calling the rock garden zone. The existing rock garden, dominated by two large yuccas, is immediately behind, and I intend to make this area a visual extension of that, populated mostly with lower-growing drought-tolerant plants such as agaves, aloes and manfredas, rain lilies, and snake herb. Many of those were already growing in the area just in front of the rock garden, so I hope to weave all those into a cohesive section of the garden, bordered by an Arizona cypress, a small magnolia, and the pond to the left, our large live oak in the back right corner, and a few larger shrubs and the rapidly returning lemon eucalyptus to the right. To satisfy the new plants' needs, I incorporated a decent amount of sand into the soil, and made sure it was all mounded well above the level of the surrounding lawn. If I'm successful, this will also be the first part of our Texas garden that we can walk through, rather than just alongside, using the semicircular flagstone path. But my projects have a habit of developing in different direction than I first envision, so only time will tell how it turns out. Stay tuned for updates in future gardening seasons!

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three subtropicals amid a sea of Bermudagrass
July 10, 2021. Five years of Texas gardening
This weekend marks the five-year anniversary of moving into our Texas home (and leaving our Pennsylvania garden behind). Those years have passed quickly, and it's funny to look at pictures of our brand-new yard right after we arrived. At that time, it was just an expanse of grass (Bermudagrass, an unfamiliar concept to me at the time, and still the subject of much grumbling on my part) boxed in by privacy fences. If you've poked around a bit on this website, you probably noticed that those fences no longer dominate the view, and a good bit of B-grass' territory has been reclaimed by worthier garden inhabitants. That all happened a little bit at a time – in fact, it took a while to get started at all, since I was the losing party in a car-on-bicycle accident just a week after moving in, and was in no condition to do hard gardening for a few months. But by the time this photo was taken, in early October 2016, I was starting to envision a future with more vertically inclined greenery in view. These first three potted specimens (which would soon thereafter be planted in the first borderlet along that fence) represented our haul from a local chain nursery, which was full of plants we had no experience with. From left to right: a sago palm (still alive, after two deep freezes), a 'Lisbon' lemon tree (which perished in the following winter), and a cordyline, which may still be marginally alive in a corner of our garden somewhere, but which never regained the splendor of its nursery form after its first winter. So the past several years have been full of new discoveries, finding out which plants thrive here, which merely survive, and which are no match for the summer heat or the occasional winter deep freeze. I'd like to think that I'm better equipped to be a Texas gardener now, but I'm still learning – and likely will continue to learn from my mis-steps, until it's time to move gardens yet again.
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July 31, 2021. A slinky skink!
Today, Amy had implored me to clean up our back patio, which was not in the presentable state required for a visit by my mother. As a dutiful husband and son, I set out to give the neglected zone some TLC, and was glad I did: As I was sweeping the concrete, I spotted an unfamiliar slithery creature out of the corner of my eye. New vertebrate species sightings in our garden are very rare, so I was excited about this one, and managed to keep it confined to a bare area of the patio long enough for me to take a few pictures (and for Amy and Ben to admire it, too). Turns out this is a little brown skink (Scincella lateralis), which makes it the first skink I've had the pleasure of witnessing outside of captivity. It's apparently a common species, so I hope that our friend and its kin proliferate here. We also had a sighting of one of its legless cousins (a shy non-venemous snake) by Lily a couple weeks ago. I wish I'd seen that one too, but I couldn't find it around our pond when I went out to look for it. Likewise, the geckoish lizard that I occasionally spot around our compost bins has not posed for a photo yet. So for now, skinky is only the second reptilian being featured on Rob's Plants, proudly joining the green anole.
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October 03, 2021. Pipevines for swallowtails
One of the reasons I plant pipevines (Aristolochia species) in the garden is to provide habitat for pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) butterflies, whose caterpillars are pipevine-picky eaters. Back in Pennsylvania, the one species I grew was Dutchman's pipe (A. tomentosa), a huge woody vining monster that climbed high into a neighboring weeping cherry tree. It may very well have attracted swallowtails (there was so very much of it, with many places to hide), but I never spotted their butterflies. Out here in Texas, my selections of pipevine have been decidedly more demure, thus far limited to white-veined pipevine (A. fimbriata) and Watson's pipevine (A. watsonii). Both are ground-sprawlers more than climbers, and not nearly as vigorous as the old Dutchman's pipe. At least the white-veined one has fairly substantial leaves, while Watson's leaves are narrow and unsubstantial (although the maroon arrowheads have an undeniable elegance). I always doubted that any one plant was sufficient to sustain a voracious caterpillar, but kept the plants out of curiosity. After recently completing the new rock garden zone, I transplanted one of each plant to the front of this new area, which I've been patrolling carefully to nip any weed infestations in the bud. I'm happy to report that on those patrols in recent weeks, I spotted a pipevine caterpillar on each of the plants – a few weeks ago on A. fimbriata, and today on A. watsonii. As you can see in the photo, there really doesn't seem very much for the poor thing to munch on, yet the caterpillar has reached what looks to be a viable size. I still haven't seen adults in my garden, but hopefully the youngsters, should they develop their wings, will spread the word about this little garden in suburbia. I'll be happy to plant more pipevines, now that I'm convinced: if you plant it, they will come!
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October 05, 2021. Rock garden zone progress
A few months have passed since I finished the rock garden zone. Shortly after my previous report, I spread a good bit of pea gravel across the whole area to serve as a non-moisture-retentive mulch. I'd not tried anything like that before, but we like the look, and the plants seem to like it too. The few plants I installed in the area have done pretty well, but they're not fast growers. On the other hand, quite a few volunteers have popped up (not counting the weeds, which I've been pulling diligently, hoping that the various euphorbia wildlings will eventually give up): plenty of jewels of Opar and scarlet sage, both of which already grew nearby, but also a few patches of Dahlberg daisies, which were a bit of a surprise. I'd had a few of them in a neighboring border, but they hadn't returned this year in their original spot. So I guess they quite like the setting of the new area, and their cheerful yellow flowers are certainly welcome. Keeping the central almond verbena in check will be an ongoing job: it wants to grow much bigger than is ideal for the small space, so I take loppers to it regularly. It doesn't seem to hold a grudge about that. So I have high hopes for our rock garden zone – stay tuned for updates in years to come.
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December 22, 2021. Busy Susan
Sometime this spring, I walked out of a nursery with a small specimen of black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata), thinking it would be a nice way to cover the four-foot-high stump of the silver-dollar tree that had been killed by the freeze a few months earlier. Well, the vine didn't show much inclination to cover said stump – it cheerfully bloomed, but despite my coaxing and attempting to manually wind the vines around, they would just slump down and look elsewhere for support. Eventually I gave up, just watching every once in a while how Susan was conquering adjacent territory, removing her vines where they got in the way or endangered neighboring plants. Then, in the fall, I didn't get out to the backyard as much any more (or maybe I just blinked), and left my vine to her own devices. Yesterday, Christmas break having arrived, I strolled around the garden, and was struck by the vast expanse covered in an orange-yellow-tinged haze by the black-eyed damsel (aided, in a more limited fashion by her beau, the Mexican flame vine): the poor little magnolia right next to the pond is completely overtaken, while the Arizona cypress behind will soon face the same fate, if killing freezes don't arrive soon. As for that stump: you can see it in the middle of the picture, the upper half still uncovered. I'll have to come up with more effective management strategies next year, if Susan's roots survives those freezes.
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Dozens of thryallis seedlings lining up in front of the mama plant
December 31, 2021. Plant responses to the big freeze
The polar vortex that descended upon Texas in mid-February already seems like an age ago. Although a few woody plants left us completely, many eventually regrew from their roots, so that by now the garden looks almost as full as it did a year ago. That's partly because I adapted my gardening style, allowing many aggressive growers to take up more than their allotted space just to fill in the empty spots left behind by their dead or barely resprouting neighbors. I'll have to take a firmer approach next year, lest I find myself tending to a garden composed primarily of thugs –you hear that, cape honeysuckle and firecracker plant? Meanwhile, the plants themselves have displayed some interesting adaptive responses to the freeze event. While many of the true trees, if they opted to resprout, just did so from right at the base of the old trunk (like the olive tree and the lemon-scented gum), a number of the shrubbier border-dwellers also sent up suckers some distance removed from the mother structure – something they hadn't done in any prior years. I suspect this is a response to the roots receiving no nourishment from the freeze-killed top growth, and pushing up new growth at various points along the root system to start new photosynthesis factories. For example, the Duranta erecta, which had in previous years grown as a somewhat loppy, bushy tree did return from the base, but also sent up suckers in a radius of about two feet around. I now have a nice little crop of baby durantas (some already blooming nicely) that I need to find homes for. Similarly, our star jasmine was killed to the ground and took a long time to push new growth from near the base – but when it did, I also found new jasminelets not too far away. These have likewise thrived.
A different response mechanism appears to have come into play for our thryallis shrub, a star of our back border. It was never quite killed all the way back, and the mother plant was back in full form by late spring. But interestingly, many seedlings sprouted all around its immediate area, which hadn't happened in the previous four years it overwintered in our garden. Could the seeds of this semi-tropical plant actually require a freezing period to germinate? I don't know yet, but I'm experimenting with seeds I collected last fall. So far, they haven't germinated after three weeks at room temperature, so it will be interesting to see whether a week-long trip through the fridge or the freezer (emulating our freezing spell) will entice them to sprout.
Gardening in Pennsylvania, we counted on the rejuvenation of the garden in spring to rekindle our gardening spirit, with nearly everything returning afresh after a winter in hiding. In Houston, where many plants just keep on blooming right through our milder winters, the rejuvenation effect isn't nearly as strong – but it's nice to see that even here, when frigid weather intervenes, nature responds in interesting and (to me) unpredictable ways.

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Last modified: December 31, 2021
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