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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Finally! Cool Enough For A Ragù

No, not that kind -- a homemade spin on a traditional Italian sauce.  When I was growing up, we called this "Spaghetti Roast," but it's really a sort of ragù, long-simmered and meaty.

I don't use a recipe when I cook this, but I tried to measure things in case you want to give it a try.  It's a forgiving sauce.  If you don't like a certain ingredient, don't add it.  Feel free to substitute whatever you like! 

Brown a little better than this!
I love Italian sausage, so I start with that.  I browned about a pound of Italian sausage in my largest, heaviest pan over high heat.  Sweet, hot, it doesn't matter.  My sausage was ground.  When it's in a casing, I slice it into half-inch pieces.  After the sausage is browned, remove it to a bowl.  There should be some fat still sizzling in the pan.  If not, add a small dollop of olive oil.  Next, add a 2-3 pound chuck roast.  Or whatever sort of meat you like when you make pot roast.  Brown well on both sides.  I probably didn't brown this one quite enough.  When the meat is browned on both sides, remove it to the bowl. 

Bell pepper, onion and celery: the holy trinity
Next, add a mix of chopped vegetables.  Today I used 2 stalks of celery, almost a whole white onion and a leek that was leftover from something else.  Also, a whole green pepper.  Watch the heat -- you want to brown these vegetables but not burn them.  When the vegetables are almost tender, add a few cloves of chopped garlic.  How much you add depends on how much you like garlic.

Seasoned but not cooked
Let the garlic cook for a minute or so, just until you can smell it.  Now deglaze the pan.  Usually I just add the tomato sauces, but I was lucky this morning and had a little bit of leftover red wine.  Into the pot it went.  I heated the wine, scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan.  Then I added about 100 ounces of tomato-type products: tomato sauce, canned diced tomatoes, stewed whole tomatoes.  Again, your choice.  Around my house, people give you a funny look if there are too many whole tomatoes in the sauce, so I use 2 large cans of tomato sauce, 1 large can of diced tomatoes, and a small can of whole tomatoes.

Here's the fun part.  You flavor the sauce with anything your heart desires.  I use oregano, basil, crushed red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, a teaspoon of white sugar, two bay leaves and fennel seeds.  If you have tough old gardener hands, you just pour the seeds into your hand and mash them together between your palms, mortar and pestle style.  The more Italian sausage I use, the less fennel I put in. You have to taste as you go, but I start with about half a tablespoon of dried oregano, a tablespoon of dried basil, a teaspoon of fennel seeds and a half-teaspoon of crushed red pepper.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Not too hot!
Now nestle the browned meat down into the sauce, and bring just barely to a boil.  Then turn the heat way down, cover the pot and let it cook on very low heat, all day. Actually, at this point, you could put the whole thing into a crockpot and forget about it.  I usually don't -- just one more thing to wash!  The idea is to cook a very long time, though, on very low heat.  Don't simmer too hard or the meat will be tough.

Shredded into bite-sized pieces
After a few hours, take the chuck roast out of the sauce and let cool.  Then shred the meat into bite-sized pieces, using your fingers.  That way, you won't miss any stray pieces of fat or tendon that you want to remove.

Serve over hot cooked pasta!
Spoon the cooked meat back into the sauce and stir well.  You can remove the bay leaves before serving if you like, but I don't.  Whoever gets the bay leaf in the plate gets to kiss the cook!

This recipe made 20 cups of sauce that freezes well.  Make it once and you can eat like a king every Sunday for the better part of autumn!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Foliage Friday: Nandina 'Blush Pink'

Years ago, I developed a strong dislike, verging on hatred, for nandina.  People who don't garden are always a little surprised that we can actually hate a plant, but we can and we do.  Every gardener I know has a plant that she secretly (or not so secretly) despises, sometimes for no reason at all.  I'll confess, I hate red annual salvia, like 'Lady in Red,' and also the bronze-leaf wax begonias.  No reason.  Just hate them.

But I had a good reason, long ago, for disliking nandina.  The Chief Engineer and I had just bought our first house together, and I took it into my head to dig out the nandinas in the front and replace them with azaleas.  The house boasted two huge Camellia japonicas, and to my way of thinking, only azaleas would do.  Digging them out nearly killed us.  Eventually, we had to tie one of the rootballs to the truck and pull it out.

However, it's been over 20 years and I'm coming around.  This winter, the nandina were stunning, perhaps because most of our tropicals and semi-tropicals were so badly frozen.  The leaf color was rich and dark green or red and the berries were abundant.  I feel better about nandina now.

Nandina 'Blush Pink'
Here's a nandina that's especially pretty.  'Blush Pink' is a sport of an old nandina favorite, 'Firepower.'  The new growth is almost red and contrasts nicely with the bright lime-green older foliage.  This nandina's on the compact size and should only reach about 3 feet tall.  All nandinas tolerate bright shade and make a nice, evergreen foundation plant for the South.

Note:  some jurisdictions list Nandina, or Heavenly Bamboo, as an invasive species.  Some experts disagree.  They do sucker outward, forming ever-larger clumps. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Greetings From The Tomato Forest

It wasn't supposed to be a tomato forest.  I had such high hopes: this time, I'll really stay on top of the pruning.  I need to take lessons from my friend Peg T., who's a ruthless pruner.  Her tomatoes, therefore, suffer less from disease and sunlight is able to reach all the leaves.   My tomatoes are aiming for the roof.  There are only four plants here, in a 5 foot by 5 foot space. 

See my optimistic little walkway? 
You know how it is.  At planting time, the tiny transplants look so adrift in the huge area allotted to them.  Each little plant sulked during the heat of August, under its tiny tomato cabana.  And now, they are reaching their green arms over the fence, wrestling with each other and with the fig ivy, breaking under the weight of their own leaves.

Sunchaser -- coming right along!
But so far, they look reasonably healthy.  The hardest thing about the fall garden is the fact that all the insect pests are awake, alive and well.  Sometimes we can get a head start on them in the spring, but not the fall.  And this August was much hotter than I expected (like this October!).  My plants have responded with lots of green growth, but not too much fruit set.  Actually, I'm surprised any set at all, considering how warm late October has been.  Yesterday and the day before both set records for heat: 90 and 91 degrees, respectively.

Sweet Million.  Too hot to set fruit.
The first one to set fruit was Sun Chaser, a disease-resistant hybrid that supposed to perform well in hot weather.  It has several good-sized green tomatoes on it now.  Carmello and Champion both have teeny, tiny tomatoes.  And little Sweet Million has lots of flowers, but so far, no fruit. 

Here's hoping for a cool front!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Odd and Unnatural? In Favor, I Think...

I've been preoccupied with the idea of artificial turf for quite a while now, and I'm not sure if I've completely sorted out my thoughts yet.  But here goes.

Victor's photo of newly installed synthetic grass
Recently my friend Victor had artificial grass installed in front of his family-owned nursery Plants For All Seasons.  When I first saw the pictures, I was surprised -- it looked exactly like beautiful, healthy turf.  The local SYNLawn distributor, Strickly Green Grass, installed it as a demonstration piece, using two different kinds in two different areas.

My snooty initial reaction?  I turned up my nose.  Who in their right mind would install artificial grass in their garden?  Why, that's as bad as those hanging baskets of red silk geraniums!  Right?!?

The same grass, several weeks later
Then I got to thinking a little bit more.  Victor believes that water conservation will drive installation of synthetic grass, and that's a pretty serious topic.  Even here, where we generally get more than 50" of rain per year, ground water supplies are limited.  We don't pay even a fraction of what our water's really worth.  So I had to ask myself what my problem really was.

Because I myself have criticized the Texas lawn culture and deplored the incredible amount of water applied to turfgrasses.  (Which is generally far in excess of what the grass actually needs, but that's for another blog.)  I have shaken my head at carpets of grass verging on 4 inches thick, the product of overfertilization, followed by overwatering, and then the application of fungicides to combat disease induced by overfeeding and overwatering.  And I had to ask myself this question: Which is worse, synthetic grass or grass kept perfectly green by such extremely artificial measures?

Looks pretty natural to me...
My own lawn is rarely watered.  I allow it to turn brown during times of drought, and it generally recovers.  It is properly dormant in the winter and I fertilize once or twice a year, well after the weather warms up.  It is mowed once a week almost all year long, though the winter mowings usually just provide me with shredded leaves for the compost pile.  An acceptable, but far from perfect lawn: that's my own preference.

For those compelled to have bright green grass, all summer and all winter long, perhaps synthetic turf is the answer.  I think it's odd and unnatural and I wonder what the heck it's made of.  But it bothers me less than lawns that have been fertilized, watered, and treated to within an inch of their lives.  And I've always been very supportive of the gardener's right to do odd things in the garden.  So if you install synthetic grass in your front yard, I may chuckle about it.  But I'll fight by your side when the Homeowner's Association comes to get you.

You can read about Victor's synthetic grass installation in his blog, The Dirt.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall Color: How We Do It Around Here

Most people know we don't get the spectacular fall foliage down here, but we do have some!  This is my young baldcypress tree, graciously turning a beautiful coppery color just in time for Halloween's festivities.  Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) is a conifer, one of the few that isn't evergreen.  It's a big, big tree -- really too big for my small suburban lot.  One day, someone is going to regret that I planted it, but I couldn't resist.

Pick a bigger space if you plant one!
The baldcypress has fine, feathery leaves and round cones.  Unlike many trees, it thrives in heavy, clay soil.  For many of us southerners, it is a veritable symbol of the south, and is the state tree of Louisiana. Baldcypress sometimes sends up "knees," extensions of the root systems that poke up above the ground.  Even though mine is young, it's already sending up a few knees.  Eventually, I'll increase the size of the mulch circle around the tree until all the knees are inside.

Here's the fall color, just beginning...
In addition to the fall color it provides, baldcypress is also especially lovely in the spring.  The new leaves are the most wonderful shade of green -- a green you just won't see on an evergreen tree.  It always frustrates me when gardeners want to limit themselves to evergreens.  I love accompanying my baldcypress on its seasonal journey, from bright, chartreuse spring foliage, through the rich forest greens of summer, and finally to the amber leaves of fall.  After all the needles come down, I love to look at that trunk, straight as an arrow.  What I'd miss if I only planted evergreens!

Wonderful, fine texture
Baldcypresses are ancient and long-lived trees.  The oldest one in North American is rumored to be over 3,500 years old.  Some of the trees in its family include the true cypresses, cedars, junipers, dawn redwoods, and giant sequoias.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dogs Eat Cabbage?

Greta.  Sweet, but not too smart.
Well, one does.  Our poor old Greta, 17 years old, is fixated on cabbage.  She wanders over to the vegetable plot and munches the newly planted cabbages down to the ground.  I think she has some help with the fence from our younger dog Griffin, who's not all that interested in the cabbage, but just likes to tear things up.  He's waiting for the tennis balls that usually appear on the tomato plants.

Replaced the cabbage with brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
Apparently, there aren't any long-term problems with dogs eating cabbage, but let me assure you, the short-term implications are dreadful.  Enough said.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Foliage Friday: Kalanchoe Tomentosa

I'm a sucker for Kalanchoe of all kinds.  I particularly love the common, old-fashioned K. blossfeldiana, but since this is Friday, I thought I'd share a photo of the Panda plant, more formally known as Kalanchoe tomentosa.

Kalanchoe tomentosa
"Tomentosa" means woolly, and that certainly describes this little succulent.  Its leaves are covered with fine, soft hairs, giving it a furry appearance. Panda plant is native to Madagascar and only gets about 18" tall.  It's tender, so bring it inside during the winter.  They are said to tolerate full sun, but here in zone 9A, I think it does better with a bit of protection from the afternoon summer sun.  Like any succulent, it prefers a well-draining soil and cannot tolerate overwatering.

Kalanchoes are related to the Jade plants, and can be propagated the same way: carefully detach a leaf from the main plant and nestle it about an eighth of an inch down in some good-quality potting medium.  In about four weeks,  you may have a little baby panda!

By the way, I have heard that the proper pronunciation of this plant is "kallan-COE-ee."  I have to confess, in my family we stubbornly continue to say "kuh-LAWN-cho."  This is what happens when you learn plant names from books!  Here's a link to Fine Gardening's Online Pronunciation Guide.  What do they think YOU mispronounce?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Western Soapberry

Western Soapberry: berries turning golden brown
Now here's a native Texas tree, botanically related to the Golden Rain Tree, that provides good fall color and interesting gray bark.  As natural areas give way to housing and commercial developments, this pretty tree's continued survival in the wild is threatened.  It's a nice smaller-scale tree for urban environments and could be adapted to home and garden use.  If you're looking for a front-yard tree, think about Western Soapberry!

Western Soapberry: berries unripe.
Western Soapberry, or Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii, is a deciduous tree that ranges in height from 10 to 40 feet.  Soapberry flowers are white and usually appear in May or June, but far more striking are the golden berries of October.  These little fruits contain saponin and have been used as a soap substitute for quite some time.  Don't eat them, though -- they are toxic if ingested.

Bipinnate leaves of Western Soapberry
The variety name of Western Soapberry honors Thomas Drummond, a botanist, naturalist and explorer.  Mr. Drummond collected 750 plant species in Texas between 1833 and 1835, with particular focus on the area between Galveston Island and the Edwards Plateau.  If you're a Texan, you know this was a pretty untamed place back then!  Mr. Drummond died in Cuba on a plant collecting trip.  Many of our best-loved plants carry his name.

Here's more information about Texas History and the Western Soapberry.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bug With Poise

I wish I could convey the gravity possessed by this bug.  He's not naturally shiny like that:  he arose from the sweet potato patch as I was watering one evening.  If you were there to watch closely, you might have seen him almost shake off the water.

Leaffooted Bug, I believe...
He had a measured and stately gait; ascending to the top of a nearby dwarf yaupon took him at least 5 minutes. I think he knew I was there, trying to catch him in the light with the proper camera lens.  He favored me with a slow glance over his shoulder as if to say, "Yes?"  But very slowly.  And with a very un-bug-like hauteur that is most uncommon in my little vegetable garden.

Photo: Tom Barrow
I stepped back and let him continue his sunset gaze.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Golden Rain Tree, I've Been Waiting For You!

Our version of fall color
 It's true we don't get the spectacular fall color some folks do.  Our red maples are red in the spring, when the flowers open.  We actually feel guilty when we see red foliage in the fall: it indicates the presence of the Chinese Tallow Tree, an invasive species that now accounts for 23% of the trees in the 8-county Houston area.  (Here's the Houston Regional Forest Report.)

Mature Golden Rain Tree
But I'm in love with another introduced tree that is beautiful in the fall:  The Golden Rain Tree, or Koelreuteria paniculata.  The fast-growing tree is also on some invasive plants lists, and probably I shouldn't love it but I do.  All summer it provides beautiful shade but the real show is in the late summer and early fall.

Golden Rain Tree flowers
The flowers are a bright golden-yellow, and they are carried high above the canopy, in full view of every passerby.  After the tree is fully in bloom, the seed pods form, a bright coral-pink color that is even more spectacular than the flowers.

Golden Rain Tree Seedpods
Golden Rain Trees grow to a height of 30-40 feet tall and are tolerant of a wide variety of soils.  They flower best in full sun.  I love seeing them this time of year.  They do reseed prolifically, but not more than our native red maple does.  I might have to plant one anyway, and do environmental penance somehow later!

All photos in this post: Tom Barrow

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ragweed or Goldenrod?

I can tell fall is coming after all, because I spend my days tanked up on Zyrtec and Sudafed and my nights dreaming Benadryl dreams.  I don't know how the pollen count is where you live, but it's terrible here.  Ragweed is our main culprit, sending the pollen counts skyrocketing for almost a month now.  But the goldenrod's blooming now too, so we're being warned not to blame goldenrod.  It's not the goldenrod's fault, just because it looks like ragweed.

Bad guy or good guy?
I doubted my ability to tell one from the other.  And I couldn't let it go, because I kept driving past fields and fields of bright yellow flowers, which were probably goldenrod (right?), but could be ragweed.  I looked at pictures on the internet.  I looked at my handy weed field guide.  Informative, but still, I was unable to identify those weeds blooming their heads off in our area fields.  I dreaded walking through it, in case it was ragweed, but I had to find out.

I think it's goldenrod, all right, Solidago canadensis.  The leaves are lanceolate and the plants are taller than ragweed usually is.  Except for that giant ragweed.  Did you know there was a giant ragweed?  Time for a closer look...

Leaves like goldenrod and brightly colored...
Yep.  Looks like goldenrod.  These plants don't seem to have the reddish stem of ragweed, and the flower heads lean over and downward.  I seem to remember that ragweed holds its flower heads straight up.  Probably safe to venture closer.  Oh no!  Some have flowerheads standing straight up!

Young goldenrod or mature ragweed?
And here's something else.  Is this a goldenrod plant that's just beginning to flower?  Or could it be ragweed? 
Now that I'm home, I can't remember if this plant had the raggy leaves or the nice, neat, narrow leaves.

Ah, now I feel better!  Ragweed is wind-pollinated, which is why it has to release those billions of pollen grains every year.  Goldenrod is pollinated by sweet little honeybees, because their pollen grains are too heavy to be carried by the wind.  (Of course, bees also visit ragweed for the pollen, but I'm hoping for the best!)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Foliage Friday: Rhapis Palms

I have to say, I don't really like palms.  To my eye, they look strange and naked in our lush, semi-tropical climate.  The proportion looks wrong to me, especially when planted singly.  And given that we do occasionally experience a hard freeze (remember last winter?), it's hard to believe there are so many planted in the Houston area..  That said, I do like palms that look more like shrubs.  We have some pretty palmettos that are native Texans and are quite cold-hardy. 

Closeup of Rhapis excelsa leaves
But my favorite palm is the Lady Palm, or Rhapis excelsa.  This relative of the Areca palm looks like bamboo, and is sometimes called Bamboo Palm.  I like the lush, tropical look of the foliage and the height: typically Lady Palm grows to a height of only 10-12 feet. 

Rhapis palm at Houston Zoo
Although this palm looks tropical, it's actually fairly cold hardy.  Older specimens survived our freezes last winter with no problems.  The picture above, taken in May of 2010, shows Lady Palms planted in the ground at the Houston Zoo.  You can hardly tell there was a freeze.

Rhapis palms -- lush and tropical
There are many different cultivated varieties on the market, and some are quite expensive.  They are said to be slow-growing when young, which may explain the high price.  But for a tropical look, or a rich, dense visual screen, they are perfect.  Plant in light shade or part sun for best results around here.  Full sun will cause yellowing and damage to foliage.

Another hardy palm that has a more delicate, finely textured look is Hardy Bamboo Palm, or Chamaeadorea microspadix.  It's got a very similar appearance, but the fronds are less fan-like.  I like that one too -- perhaps because it doesn't look like a palm!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bloom Day Is Tomorrow

And for the first time in a long while, I'm not excited about it.  This is a tough time for me to get in the spirit of things, gardenwise.  There's a serious disconnect between the garden I have in my mind and the garden I have in my backyard in late September and October.

Datura.  Is this a summer flower or what?
My mind says Fall is here!  The kids are back in school, Halloween is in a few weeks, the Christmas decorations are already in the stores, the family negotiations over Thanksgiving dinner have begun in earnest.

Tomato flowers waiting for cooler weather before they set fruit.
But outside, it's still late summer.  It's been in the 90s this week, even though it has been much drier lately, and cool in the mornings.  I do have tomato flowers on the bushes, but the rest of the garden really still looks like late summer.  And I so want for it to be autumn.

Coral vine on the back fence, sprawled over the gingers.

Morning Glory
The coral vine looks good, as it has all summer.  The butterfly gingers are going crazy and the morning glory, turnera and pavonia are still blooming their collective hearts out.  But not for us, not yet, the pansies, violas, mums, snapdragons, etc.  I must say, I planted a snapdragon in the vegetable garden because I couldn't stand it anymore, but it's really almost too hot.

Turnera now tall enough to wrestle with bougainvillea.
For now, check in with Carol at May Dreams Gardens for a cheerier Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.  She hosts this wonderful meme, and gardeners all over the world are happily visiting with her, celebrating the change of seasons.  Perhaps you'll meet my friend Diana at Elephant's Eye, who's probably rejoicing in the spring.  US gardeners north of me are certainly reveling in the fall weather.  For us Gulf Coast gardeners, it may be a while yet. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden

Japanese Tea Garden
After a delicious lunch (chicken salad!) Friday, we headed over to the Japanese Tea Garden, only a few miles from the Botanical Garden.  This strange and beautiful place is the site of an old rock quarry that operated in San Antonio until 1908.  By then, the land around the quarry had already been donated to the city as Brackenridge Park.  In 1915, the land adjacent to the quarry was donated to the city by Emma Koehler, widow of Pearl Brewery founder Otto Koehler.  The unusual locale posed quite a challenge for the city Parks Department, but finally Parks Commissioner Ray Lambert hit upon the idea of a lily pond.  He and his city engineer, with very little money, constructed the garden in 1917-1918, using prison labor to transform the quarry into a Japanese-style garden.  Plants, building materials and services were donated to the city and when all was said and done, the project was completed for about $7,000.  Today, the Japanese Tea Garden is a Texas Civil Engineering Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Way above the koi ponds.
The Japanese Tea Garden features lush landscaping, rock paths, bridges, waterfalls and koi ponds. Admission is free, and it's a lovely place to spend a sunny fall afternoon.  Here's a few of the things we saw there.

Koi of all colors.
Some of the largest koi I ever saw live there.  Most were beautiful, but be forewarned!  There's a scary battleship-gray sort prowling around in the shadows.  They look like stealthy submarines down there.  I also learned that it's hard to photograph fish.

Arundo donax
The plant in the foreground is Arundo donax, or Carrizo Cane.  It's growing in isolated spots in the garden.  This wildly aggressive grass-like plant is native to warm parts of Asia and Africa.  Although it's widely planted throughout the temperate regions of the world, my guess is that people regret it. 

Creeping Fig Ivy -- with figs!

Creeping Fig Ivy -- notice the immature vs. mature leaves?
And speaking of regret, I was horrified to see a huge wall covered in creeping fig ivy.  This vine had gotten so big that it had actually begun to bear fruit.  Look closely at the first picture above.  See the yellowish fruits?  Those are the "figs."  I should really put my house on the market and try to forget that I ever planted it.

The pond  is quite shallow, but very clear.  There's an extensive filtration system that was renovated in 2007.

The lagoon
I don't know if you can see the koi in this picture.  It was taken from high atop the old tea garden house.  Those koi are as big as aircraft carriers.

Good guy, not bad guy.