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.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bowed But Not Broken

I can't grow Southern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris).  I have tried and tried for lo, these 20 years.  I know all the technical requirements these lovely ferns have: partial to mostly shade, consistently moist (but well-drained!) soil, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  Yes, I know all that.  I still can't grow it.

Southern Maidenhair Fern

It doesn't matter if I try it in potting soil in containers, or planted in shady flower beds.  It just doesn't work for me.  I hate it when people tell me how easy this fern is for them to grow.  If you have a HUGE specimen, try not to comment about it.  I'm trying to work up the gumption to try again.

Lacy green leaves, delicate black stems

These pictures were taken at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in the pouring rain.  Even so, I was quite inspired.  By the way, I can't grow Northern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) either.  But I haven't killed it yet!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hurray for the Fort Bend County Fair!

We love the county fair!  Before we moved to Fort Bend, we used to go to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, in the early spring.  It turned out we didn't really know what a real county fair was all about.  It wasn't until I lived in the Kansas City area and attended the American Royal there that I understood that a county fair could be more than just a cowboy-themed circus.

I love that the Fort Bend County Fair features the artwork of young students in the local schools, public and private.

I love that the 4-H still recognizes young people when they learn how to pickle okra.

I love that the animals raised and shown at the Fair are Fort Bend animals!

I love watching the kids at the Midway.

I love the odd things you see here and there at the Fair.  Weather permitting, we'll go back this weekend and report on the wonderful (terrible) terribly wonderful food.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Agriculture or Horticulture?

Farming or gardening?  What's the difference and does it even matter?  Merriam-Webster defines agriculture (and farming, for that matter) as "the science, art or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock..."  Horticulture's definition is very similar: "the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers or ornamental plants."  The definition of garden added herbs to the mix.  The difference seems to be whether or not the endeavor is commercial.  Plants for sale = farming.  Plants for pleasure = gardening.  This small semantic difference means a great deal in practice for me.  No matter how we love it, there's an optional air to gardening that doesn't exist for farming.

Public Library of Science, source here.

I think we plant people have erred when we try to apply the same principles across the board to both agriculture and horticulture. I think many gardeners now understand that vegetables can in fact be grown tucked into flowerbeds and patio containers.  I know lots of vegetable gardeners and not a single one of them has a 100-foot row.  Tilling every season is another practice, borrowed from agriculture, that is out of place in the ornamental garden.  (There's a bit of discussion out there now about whether it needs to be a part of agricultural practice at all, but that's for another time.)  And I, for one, am a little bit unsure whether chemical products tested in an agriculture environment will behave in the same way at home.  Mainly because I don't think gardeners behave the same way as farmers do.  Another discussion for later.

What concerns me today is what happens, though, when we try to apply good gardening techniques to farming.  I don't think it's appropriate to proclaim that one's own personal gardening preferences are suitable for agriculture as a whole.  For example, I don't use Roundup™ in my garden at home.  My yard is small and it's really just as easy for me to just pull a weed as it is to cook up some herbicide.  But I don't think it's out of line for farmers to use it.  As pesticides go, Roundup™ is on the low end of the toxicity scale.  It should be used responsibly and sparingly, but it's generally an environmental improvement over herbicides developed prior to 1971.

In 1850, 75% of American slaves were involved in the production of cotton.

Maybe I'm more sensitive to it because I garden in the South.  But I'm very much aware of what agriculture is like when farmers don't rely on certain beneficial chemicals.  I live in an area that was, in my lifetime, primarily cotton and sugar cane fields.  When these crops were introduced to Southeast Texas, they were only economically viable because some degree of forced labor existed.  First it was Native American labor, conscripted by Spanish missionaries.  Then it was slave labor.  Finally, prison farm labor provided the necessary manpower.  And guess what?  For most of that time, farmers used purely organic methods.  I'm not saying that organic gardeners favor slavery.  I am saying that some gardeners fail to look at the bigger picture.  For example, if cotton is not defoliated using certain chemicals, it must be hand-picked.  And picking cotton is no romantic, back-to-Nature experience.

Marinated cucumbers, organically grown

I'm not opposed to organic food, either.  I grow it, I buy it, I cook it, I eat it.  But I'm a person with the resources and the inclination to do it.  And I think it's short-sighted for us as a plant-community to insist that organically grown produce is the solution to the food production problems we have today.  I don't use much in the way of pesticides, organic or otherwise, in my garden.   But I do think it's possible to grow healthy, affordable food using non-organic (conventional) methods. 

Black spot
I don't think it's fair to claim that what's good for me in my little tiny less-than-a-quarter-acre garden will work for a subsistence-level farmer.  If I get black spot on my roses, I just put up with it.  If a farmer loses his crop to an insect pest, that's an entirely different thing.  Let's all step back a bit and try to see a bigger picture before we go around making rules that apply to the whole wide world.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Butterfly Ginger: The Seeds

Bright red seeds in an orange pod.
I've grown Butterfly Gingers (Hedychium coronarium) forever, and for some reason, I don't recall seeing the seeds.  But here they are.  They surprised me the other day when I was out in the side garden, looking for tree frogs.  I didn't find any frogs, but I was struck by how vivid these seeds were.

Fragrant white flowers attract huge hummingbird moths at night.

Butterfly Ginger is native to India and is a popular tropical perennial here.  I've always propagated it by division, but this time I'm going to plant the seeds and see what happens. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sweet Potatoes and World Domination

Here's the sweet potato patch, occupying a raised bed approximately 5 feet by 5 feet.  I trim the curling tendrils back about every week to keep it from smothering the tomatoes and suffocating the water faucet.  The little vining devils that wander out onto the driveway are ruthlessly pruned back when we drive on them.  And this is one plant, a tiny slip of a thing, that was planted in June of this year.

Look at them go!

We've grown sweet potatoes in this spot for two years now, and they seem to love it.  The variety pictured above is 'Beauregard,' also known as the Louisiana Sweet Potato.  I order them from The Tator Man, or George's Plant Farm.  It's best if you can get together with a group of people to order because, as you can tell, you don't need many plants.  It's too late to plant them this year, but bookmark his site for next April.  The prices work out to $1 per slip or less.  You will never find a better deal.  I love to grow sweet potatoes because they are so cooperative.  I fertilize them with a mild liquid solution when I remember to do it, and once this season I spread some Sluggo out for the snails.  That's it!

'Beauregard' is a traditional vining-type sweet potato and we grow it specifically for Thanksgiving, because it's such a quick crop.  This year, we are also experimenting with 'Bunch Porto Rican.'  Its stems are a pretty purple color and the plants are not nearly so assertive.  We have them planted decorously in the front yard, masquerading as a tidy little ground cover.  The vegetable garden is slowly escaping its confines, a la Hogan's Heroes!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Foliage Friday: Kangaroo Fern

Kangaroo Fern on my shady back porch.
I'm so happy with this fern!  It seems to tolerate my benign neglect: sometimes overwatered, sometimes underwatered.  I bought it in early spring and it has more than doubled in size.  While I don't have the characteristic spores on the underside of the leaves yet, the plant itself has grown very well.  I'm just beginning to get the fuzzy rhizomes that (perhaps) look like kangaroo's paws. 

No spores yet!

Not sure why this one is called "Kangaroo Fern."  It could be the fuzzy rhizomes, but I also read that the shape of the leaf looks vaguely like a kangaroo's foot.  In this case, the botanical name is fairly informative:  Microsorum pustulatum.  The sori are the bodies on the underside of the leaves that carry the spores.  They must be very small, hence microsorum.  Pustulatum means "covered with blisters." 

This plant is supposed to be able to tolerate a zone 8 winter, and I live in zone 9A.  I like it on the porch, though.  Maybe next spring I'll divide it and plant some in the shade garden, on a trial basis.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Sounds of Summer

The song of the cicada is the constant backdrop to our lives in the summer.  After a while, you don't really even notice the drone that rises, then falls, throughout the day and early evening.  Cicadas are native to temperate and tropical areas, and ours really kick it into high gear in July, August and September.  They shed their old skins as they molt, leaving behind a startling reminder of how big they really are.

Empty shell, discarded by occupant.

When I was growing up, we referred to them (incorrectly) as locusts, and it took me a long time to learn to call them cicadas, but cicadas they are.  These big insects have life spans that range from 2 to 5 years, although some periodic cicadas live for up to 17 years!  Although they do feed on plants, they're not really considered pests, unless you happen to place the empty shell on your sister.

I remember as a young adult attending a meeting in Leesburg, Virginia in August.  They have cicadas there too.  Our group took a walk around a little nature trail one evening, much to the shock and horror of one of our European companions.  He couldn't figure out what that terrible noise was, and why we southerners couldn't hear it.  It took him a good 10 minutes to explain to us what he was hearing before we figured it out.  Only cicadas!  Not dangerous!  I don't think he believed us, though.

Here's a link to Soundbible's Cicada clip, so you can hear it for yourself.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fall Wildflowers

Wildflowers get a lot of attention in Texas during the springtime.  But I'm here to tell you, fall can be pretty spectacular too.  It's more of an up-close experience, usually.  You won't generally see the wide expanses of bright blue or red.  But there's more to wildflowers than bluebonnets and winecups.

Here's a small selection of wildflowers blooming in one small acre near Pleak, Texas.

Sensitive briar, or Mimosa pudica
Beautiful butter yellow color.
Almost like a wild melampodium.
The biggest stickerburs you ever saw.
A tiny little primrose?
Sweet little clover.
Blue flax and sensitive briar.
Threadleaf coreopsis?
Agalinis, or False Foxglove?
Dainty -- almost like a baby's breath.
Frogfruit, maybe?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Them Old Cotton Fields

Crop is maturing...
All this rain can't be good for the cotton farmers.  It's about time to harvest -- most of the bolls are open and fluffy bits of cotton are lining the roads alongside cotton fields.  Cotton is harvested by machine nowadays, thank goodness, and has been for quite a while.  I can remember, though, being taught as a child how to pick it by hand.  I had accompanied a neighbor on a trip back home to Mississippi and Louisiana to help watch her babies while she got the crops in with her family.  Us bigger kids helped pick beans, but generally stayed away from the cotton fields.  One day, however, in the interest of our further education, we were all handed a tow sack as tall as we were and hustled out into the cotton.  My fingers prickle to this day when I remember trying to fill that bag with weightless white fluff.

Cotton has been cultivated in Southeast Texas since settlers of European descent first arrived, though the plant is native to Mexico.  It has a pretty flower, reminiscent of the hibiscus, mallow and okra, to which it is related.  The flower is creamy or pale yellow when it is newly opened and fades to a deep, rich pink.  It's odd to see both yellow and pink flowers on the same plant, but it happens all the time.

Cotton Boll Weevil Trap
Did you know that the cotton boll weevil, famous in song and story, is almost completely eradicated in the South?  Growers banded together to solve this problem, beginning in the late 1970s.  Each field is ringed with pheromone traps, which are monitored regularly.  When the traps indicate that the insects have reached a "trigger" population level, insecticides are applied to the fields.  Previously, farmers sprayed according to a timetable, regardless of insect population.  And the boll weevils are notoriously hard to control, since only the adults, outside the boll, are affected by insecticides.  You can always tell a cotton field, even when the plants are the tiniest seedlings, by the bright green traps hung on wooden stakes around the edges.

This cotton has been defoliated
Once the "bolls" or seed pods are mature, the cotton is normally defoliated to make harvesting easier.  In my neighborhood, some of the fields have been defoliated and some are still green.  It's hard to get the equipment into the fields when they are wet, but my guess is they will be harvesting very soon.

King Cotton

Wondering how organic cotton growers combat the boll weevil?  They piggyback on the success of conventional farmers in eradication zones:  if the conventional growers have eradicated a great number of boll weevils, it stands to reason they are less of a problem in organic fields.  They also use short-season cotton, hoping to get the crop in before weevil damage occurs.  There are a few natural predators of the boll weevil, but they are not readily available commercially.  Organic growers also use pheromone traps, and if weevils are discovered, they use pyrethrum as an insecticide and diatomaceous earth as a repellant.  As a last resort, the boll weevils are picked off the plants by hand.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Euphorbia marginata
From a distance, this little shrub looks like it's covered with large white flowers.  Up close, however, it's easy to see that Snow-on-the-Prairie, or Euphorbia marginata, gets its handsome good looks from variegated bracts.  Like other members of the Euphorbia family, Snow-on-the-Prairie has small flowers.  Some might even call them insignificant.  But it more than makes up for it with these showy modified leaves at the base of the tiny flower.

Note the tiny flowers!

Some of the fields near my house are covered with Snow-on-the-Prairie now, and I wish I could better convey how striking it is.  Striking enough for me to put on my snake-proof boots and hike over through a barb-wire fence to take a picture of it.  Snow-on-the-Prairie is at its most attractive in the early fall -- and that alone makes me love it.  It's been so hot here lately that I could be convinced that fall isn't coming at all this year, except that the Snow-on-the-Prairie's blooming.

The leaves are slightly fuzzy.

Not everyone loves this plant, though. It's not all that wonderful to have in your fields if you are grazing cattle.  Many euphorbias have a toxic white latex sap, and this one is no exception.  Livestock can be poisoned if a great quantity is eaten: the sap severely irritates the mouth and gastrointestinal tract.  Luckily, however, it has an acrid taste and generally, animals won't consume enough of it to be fatal.

Usually about 3 feet tall.

Other names for this native annual shrub are White-margined Spurge and Snow-on-the-Mountain. Here in the bottomlands, however, Snow-on-the-Prairie seems more appropriate.  I have seen these plants occasionally available for sale at independent nurseries and garden centers, and the seeds are available online.  Take my word for it:  a field of Euphorbia marginata is stunning in September  Just keep the cows away!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Good Pecan Harvest?

The pecans around here are gathering up their energies for the last push before harvest, which should start in most of Texas around the end of the month.  Will it be a good year?

Native pecans
It's hard to say.  Trees rely on plentiful water in August when they are filling out their nutmeats.  In my neighborhood, we were a bit shy on rainfall that month, though there was plenty in July and in September.  From down here on the ground, it looks like there are plenty of nuts in the trees.  That's always a good sign!

Pecans will drop their nuts when they are ready to be harvested, but you can pick them anytime the outer, greenish shuck starts to split.  The longer you wait, the wider the shucks split open, making it easy to shake out the hard, brown-shelled nuts.  Of course, the longer you wait, the more pecans the squirrels get to eat!

Pecans picked early in the season still have a lot of moisture in their nutmeat, and should be dried before eating.  You can dry them in the shell on screens or frames that allow air to circulate around them.  Keep them out of direct sunlight and away from heat.  You'll know they are ready when shelled pecans break in two with a sharp little snap! rather then bending. 

My pecans appear to have pecan nut scab, a disease I'm not really going to do anything about.  For one, I don't particularly care to eat pecans!  If the squirrels want them, they are welcome to all they can eat.  And it would be quite a pain to spray a large tree.  Growers combating this disease often spray up with fungicides up to 10 times per season.  It's not easy, growing pecans.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Foliage Friday: Tricolor Oyster Plant

Rhoeo discolor -- one name for it.
This little groundcover or house plant is in the Tradescantia or spiderwort family, similar to Wandering Jew-type plants.  I like the white and green variegation on the front of the leaves, but it's the reverse that's really striking -- a bright clear purple.  Oyster plant does flower off and on, and the flower is contained in two clamshell-shaped bracts (hence the name) but the foliage is the real star.

Tradescantia spathacea -- another name for it.

This plant is not entirely cold-hardy here.  On most winters, it should be safe up against the house or planted in a protected bed, but it's only reliable in zone 9b and south.  I keep mine in a pot and bring it in, just in case.  It thrives outside, in everything from mostly shade to mostly sun.  It doesn't seem picky about water either.  It's often grown as a semi-epiphyte, affixed to trees where it gets plenty of rain.  But it likes regular watering too.  It's got a fancy look to it, but it's just as sturdy as its spiderwort family, if a little more tender.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I'm Glad It's Not In MY Yard, But...

Sharp-pod Morning Glory
Isn't it pretty?  This is Sharp-pod Morning Glory, also known as Coastal Morning Glory or Tievine.  It's a vining perennial that's native to the southeastern US, from Florida west to Mexico, and north to the southern part of North Carolina.  When it really gets going, it flowers from spring all the way to the first freeze.  Readers may recall that I have quite a thing for flowering vines.  But rest assured, I haven't planted this.

Quickly covers anything that doesn't move.

Morning Glories of all kinds are fairly assertive plants, but this one is unparalleled in its ability to colonize a garden.  It spreads from the roots when the stems are severed, and from seed.  Germination appears to be quite high and a full-grown plant can produce upwards of 10,000 seeds per season.  So my advice to you is don't plant it.

Native plant, though very aggressive

If, however, it's already growing in your area, enjoy it.  I love the way it looks draped over chain-link fences.  In a weird way, it even makes me nostalgic for chain-link itself.  When I was growing up, four-foot chain-link fences were standard everywhere, complete with little silver dog on the gate.  The prettiest fences were covered in either morning glories or the old climbing rose 'Blaze.'  Nowadays, chain-link is declassé.  Here in fence-crazy Texas, we're leaning to cedar or wrought iron.  But these beautiful flowers make me remember the old Cyclone fences rather fondly.

You can't believe what they get for these in online auctions!