Pied Beauty

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Trying To Work Up Some Gratitude

For the rain, that is.  It really seems like it's rained every single day this summer, though I know that can't be true.  My typical reaction to weather: It's never been this hot/cold/wet/dry/windy/still before!  Then I look back at my notes, and I realize it's always that bad.  Always.  Today, it's the rain, the soggy soil, the monstrous mosquitoes.  We're running about 4 inches ahead of our normal rainfall. 

 (Photo: Thomas Bush)

But last year, we were ten inches behind, and almost the entire state of Texas was in a severe drought.  Crops withered on the vine, lawns turned brown and stayed that way, massive old pecans gave up the ghost and pine trees everywhere fell victim to the pine bark beetle.  It's always something.

 (Photo: Rolf Bauer)

I'm reminded of Henry Mitchell, who writes in The Essential Earthman:

I detect an unwholesome strain in gardeners here, who keep forgetting how very favorable our climate is, and who seem almost on the verge of ingratitude.  Disaster, they must learn, is the normal state of any garden, but every time  there is wholesale ruin we start sounding off -- gardeners here -- as if it were terribly unjust.  Go to any of those paradise-type gardens elsewhere, however, and see what they put up with in the way of weather, and you will stop whimpering.  What is needed around here is more grit in gardeners.

He continues:

It is not nice to garden anywhere.  Everywhere there are violent winds, startling once-per-five-centuries floods, unprecedented droughts, record-setting freezes, abusive and blasting heats never known before.  There is no place, no garden, where these terrible things do not drive gardeners mad.
from "On the Defiance of Gardeners," by Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman, ©1981, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, New York

(Photo: Jelena Loncar)

I'm trying.  Gratitude.  Grit.  Hmm.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Foliage Friday: Gold and Silver Chrysanthemum

This pretty little perennial does flower, in late summer and early fall, but I like it for the peaceful variegated foliage.  Gold and Silver Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum pacificum) is native to the Japanese island of Honshu; appropriately enough, I got mine as a cutting from the Fort Bend Master Gardeners' Japanese Garden.  All the literature says it will grow in full sun, but I've found that it does better for me in some afternoon shade.  It's reliably winter-hardy, in containers or in the ground.  Sometimes it gets leggy and I snip it back, but otherwise it's carefree.  Gold and Silver Chrysanthemum has little button-sized yellow flowers and gets to be about 18" tall. 

Note:  Sometimes this plant is listed as Ajania pacificum, Chrysanthemum ornatum, or Chrysanthemum marginatum.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Grasshopper Nymphs?

Maybe that's what these are.  I'm not exactly sure.  There are a few on each of my three citrus plants.  If they are young grasshoppers, I should really pick them off.  Technically, they're a pest.  They do eat foliage.  I see some foliage damage.  But...

They're so interesting, so outlandish when viewed from close up, that I think I'll just watch them for awhile.

Today and tomorrow, I'm at an AgriLife Extension Citrus Specialist training.  If they're not grasshopper nymphs, I should be able to find out what they are.  I'm also hoping to get some good pictures!

Note:  My friend Victor advises me that these are juvenile katydids, members of the longhorned grasshopper family.  Their bodies widen considerably as they grow older.  Does that sound familiar?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron

One of my favorite birds -- and lucky for me, it's very common around here.  Night herons are easy to see along ditches or in wet fields.  We have at least a pair or two nesting in trees around the house and the neighborhood pool.  Keep your eye out for them -- they are everywhere lately.

(Adult bird in a marsh at Brazos Bend State Park)

Yellow-crowned Night Herons are fairly large birds, about 2 feet tall.  Adults have a black face and bill, with a white mark on the cheek.  Consistent with bird-naming procedure, they are active during the day, and the yellow crown is very difficult to see.  (It seems they name birds after their least conspicuous feature sometimes!)  They have bright yellow legs and an overall smoky charcoal gray coloring.  The males and females look alike to me, although I'm sure the herons have it figured out.

 (Different bird, different marsh, but still Brazos Bend State Park)

Night herons eat insects, frogs, fish and small crustaceans.  Lately, all the little prairie pockets and water holes are full, because we've had such wonderful rain, and you may notice herons, motionless, waiting to pounce something as it swims or crawls past.

(This is a juvenile bird, feeding alone in a ditch.)

These birds have a very distinctive voice - a loud squawky rasp that almost sounds like a bark.  Most of the time, they are silent, but I have heard them calling to their fledgling youngsters.  Night herons are also easy to recognize by their awkward, rather endearing flight:  they are slow, and their legs often dangle beneath them as they struggle to achieve altitude.  Once they get going, they have a strong wingbeat, and look more like other herons in flight. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Alas! Cucumbers Succumb To Bacterial Wilt

Bacterial Wilt is a serious problem for all cucumbers and squash-type plants.  It's spread by insects -- in this case, by the cucumber beetle.  Once Bacterial Wilt takes hold, things happen quickly.  I first noticed wilting of leaves when the plants had plenty of water.  All the leaves on a lateral stem wilted, followed by the entire vine. Some of the cucumbers were deformed and some of the later ones were bitter-tasting.

Like many plant diseases, there isn't much you can do to help plants that are already infected.  It's best to pull out all sickly vines and destroy them.  I'm not composting, in case stray cucumber beetles are lurking in the foliage that's not quite dead yet.  To prevent the disease, you have to control the cucumber beetle, and that's not easy, particularly for organic gardeners.

 (Photo: Pollinator via Wikimedia Commons)

These beetles are small, only about a quarter-inch long, and move quickly.  You can try floating row cover, but it must be removed for several hours a day to allow the flowers to be pollinated.  Contact insecticides will work, but must be applied frequently and can be toxic to pollinators.  I usually just call it a day when the Wilt strikes -- and we had a pretty good cucumber harvest this year. 

Next season, I will rotate my crops so I don't plant cucumbers in the same spot.  Maybe that will help!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Jalapeno Update: Chipotle!

The jalapeno harvest continues, unabated.  The little 6-pack I planted this spring now qualifies me as an pepper farmer, so we've been busy inventing ways to preserve the bounty.  The latest experiment: Home-smoked chipotle peppers!

Chipotle peppers are typically smoke-dried jalapenos.  Ours are smaller than the canned ones at the grocery store, but they'll do.  We smoked about a pound of them outside on the grill, with mesquite chips.  Soak the chips first and then maintain a temperature of about 275° for maybe 3 hours.  Traditionally, only the red-ripe ones are smoked but we used both. 

Minor fracas ensued when Abby thought we were throwing wood chucks, instead of wood chips, on the fire, but we got that all straightened out!

I followed a very involved recipe using dried chili paste but after some experimentation, I realized that I could have used any sort of sauce.  Try barbeque sauce, sriracha sauce, or any sort of tomato-based prepared sauce.  From scratch, use tomato paste, dried red chile paste, fresh garlic, brown sugar, cider vinegar, salt and water.  Adjust seasonings as you prefer.  I don't like the sauce itself to be too spicy because our peppers have been so hot!  Cook for about 20 minutes, until the peppers soften and the sauce thickens.

You can keep this in the refrigerator for up to a month, but I processed mine in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.  I plan to store it in the pantry with the other 20 jars of jalapenos!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Crinums Are Fantastic -- And I Know Why!

It's been an incredible year for crinums in my garden.  Old varieties are blooming that never did before.  Some are blooming for the second and third time this summer.  All are vigorous, green and healthy.  What's the secret?

It's not the bountiful rain we've had so far.  It's not the cold snap last winter.  It's not any special soil amendments or fertilizers.  It's the fact that I decided this spring to get rid of them.

That's right.  Even though I love crinums, I made up my mind in April or so that it was time for a change.  They're too big.  They're hard to transplant.  They flop over.  All the plants in my backyard have sword-shaped foliage.  They don't bloom enough.  Snails love them.  Too wild and unkempt.  I had a long, long list.

So the crinums responded the only way they could -- they bloomed their hearts out.  They are bound and determined to get me to change my mind.

Oh well.  Perhaps they can stay one more year.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Foliage Friday: Rex Begonia

Lest you get the wrong idea, let me tell you right up front:  I don't grow Rex Begonias, though I think they are the most beautiful ones of all.  I have trouble in my garden with snails.  For me, Rex Begonias are snail candy.

But oh how I love the foliage!  These little beauties are good for a shady spot that's high in humidity -- maybe under a philodendron or tucked up into the hostas.   They can freeze in our winters, and your safest best is to keep them in containers.  Don't overwater, and provide a bit more fertilizer than you normally would use on foliage plants.  I think they do best with a regular dose of a dilute liquid formulation.  In cool weather, morning sun is probably okay.  Don't be surprised if your Rex Begonias fade out a bit in the summer: they prefer cooler temps.  If you have them in pots, you can bring them in winter and summer, leaving them outside in the spring and fall.

There are a great many Rex Begonia cultivars -- look for them where florist-quality plants are sold.  This isn't your average bedding plant.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Don't Believe Everything You Read

This kind of thing really aggravates me.  A local discount tree nursery has a new ad proclaiming that "it's never too hot to plant Big Tex Trees!"  They claim that their trees and palms are heat acclimated and guaranteed to grow.  Moreover, they claim that since their queen palms (Syagrus romanzoffiana) are grown in Ventura County, California instead of Florida, they will perform better in the Houston area.  They have even gone so far as to name their queen palms after the little town in California where, presumably, they are grown.  As if there's a difference between Piru queen palms and any other queen palm.

Well, you know what?  It is too hot to plant trees.  And anyone who's ever tried to water a newly planted tree in the middle of July knows it.  Let's just say you talk yourself into a large live oak, maybe 4-inch caliper.  This tree will need 20 to 30 gallons of water per week, from you or from the rain.  Imagine filling a 5-gallon bucket almost every single day and slowly letting it pour around the root ball.  Your sprinkler system isn't going to cut it.  It will have to be watered by hand.  And that's if we don't get a long spell of hot, dry, windy weather.  A strong southwest wind can strip the moisture from the leaves of a young tree faster than the roots can carry it up, no matter how much you water.  Far better to wait until October to plant trees.

It doesn't matter where those palm trees are grown, either.  They are containerized:  the root system is no bigger than the container it comes in.  What's important about where they were grown?  They were watered every single day there.  And you're going to have to water them every single day here, too.  And if we get another winter like we did last year, newly planted queen palms are in serious jeopardy.  Even if they were grown in Ventura County.

Queen palms are not reliably hardy here, although older, established ones may survive a hard freeze.  For a list of cold-hardy palms suitable for the Fort Bend County area, click here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

At the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Waiting on the vaunted Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum) to bloom.  Nothing yet, but the horticulturists are getting out the big guns: rotting bananas.  Perhaps the ethylene will cause Lois to finally burst into stinky flower!  Until then, there's the butterflies:


(Butterflies with numbers on the wing are part of a study.  A steady-handed researcher writes the numbers just before releasing them into the garden.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mediterranean House Gecko

These little night creatures were quite a surprise to me.  I lived in the Kansas City area from late 1994 through the end of 1998.  When I left the Houston area, I had never seen or heard of a Mediterranean House Gecko.  When I returned, they were everywhere!  I couldn't believe that they were so numerous!

(Photo: Tom Barrow)

Mediterranean House Geckos are native to southern Europe and Asia, but are rapidly spreading throughout the southern United States.  They are unusual lizards in that they vocalize -- you can hear them chirping to each other in the night, when they are most active.  Geckos eat insects, and quite a lot of them: they can eat their own weight in insects several times a week. 

Although their rather transparent skin can be startling, they are harmless to humans.  Their rapid expansion into most of the Southern US is a bit of a concern, because they are an introduced species.  It's not clear that they are harmful to other local reptiles, though.  In fact, they are fast being eliminated from most of Florida, by other, more aggressive gecko species.

(Photo: Tom Barrow)

The green anoles are suspicious, in any case...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I Can't Help It

I laughed out loud while reading this.  From an article called "Engineers and Scientists: Similarities and Differences," written by Dr. Henry Petrowski, published in the Summer 2010 issue of The Bent of Tau Beta Pi:

He writes that everything made by scientists and engineers is in some way natural, because everything that exists in our world follows natural laws.

Cotton may be said to be a natural fabric, but cotton shirts do not occur in nature.  They are the product of harvesting, ginning, dying, spinning, weaving, sewing, and, perhaps the most unnatural of all processes,  marketing. If cotton feels better to wear than polyester, then so be it, but it is not necessarily because cotton is more natural than polyester.