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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Tomato Forest Bids You Farewell

Well, two hard freezes in a row may have been too much for the tomato forest.  After Wednesday's heavy rains washed all the dead and dying leaves off the plants, there really wasn't much left.  Some of the plants in the very back still had bright green leaves and even flowers, but their time is past.  Which is fine, really.  It's almost time to plant spring tomatoes!

Ripening on the dining room table now...
This year, the fall tomatoes produced very well, but just a little too slowly for the weather.  You never can tell:  some years, we don't get a frost until very late, and some years it sneaks up on us.  Most of these tomatoes will ripen on the counter, and the ones that don't we'll eat anyway.

Heavy equipment optional.
Fried green tomatoes isn't just a movie -- they're the easiest things in the world to cook.  Slice them fairly thick, dip them in something like milk, buttermilk or egg, then dredge them in something like cracker crumbs, bread crumbs or cornmeal.  Then fry them up!  I like mine with some sort of sauce.  Marinara sauce is good, but it doesn't seem right to serve tomatoes with tomato sauce.  Try sour cream mixed with a judicious amount of prepared horseradish.  There are probably young people in this very house who would vote for ketchup -- but don't listen to that sort of nonsense.

Cheers, and Happy New Year to you all!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Who's In, Who's Out

Okay, I'll confess.  You may have heard me declaim that I never protect plants in the winter.  And it's true, mostly.  If you're planted in the ground, you'd better be able to stand on your own two feet in my garden, metaphorically speaking. 

However, I realized this weekend (after two hard freezes in a row) that there are some container plants that I do lug into the house each winter.  Fewer and fewer every year, it turns out, because at the moment of truth, there are always some that do not make the cut.  This year, a ratty old mandevilla has been left to freeze to death.  And that Northern Maidenhair fern that moped for a solid year? Abandoned to the bitter north wind.  (In my dark little heart, I believe it served him right!)

The best of the bunch.
But in the interests of truth and justice, I not only take it back my rash statements regarding winter protection, I offer proof of what a pitiful winter gardener I actually am.  The picture above is my south-facing bathroom window.  The light in there is so bright that I have to use the blinds or the clivias would frizzle up and die.  Here's where I have my portulacarias, the two clivias and a hoya.  And now that I see how ratty the hoya looks, I'm almost wishing I had left it on the back porch to fend for itself.

Red philodendron, the vining sort.
Here's the red philodendron, who's only just now recovered from the sunburn he received at the beginning of the spring.  I really should not keep container plants!

Here's the kitchen window -- a motley assortment if ever there was one.   Two paddle plants (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora); a clivia that almost died and is now, slowly, trying to recover; an amaryllis that I haven't gotten around to planting in the garden yet; a cutting from said ratty hoya; a toad lily and a peacock ginger.  My daughter inadvertently dug up the ginger and I never replanted it either.  So here they sit, accusingly.  (Don't you think they look sullen?)

And finally, the window by the front door, a horticultural shame.  The poor croton not only got too cold the other night, it needs water in the worst way.  And I haven't watered it because I can't find my plastic saucers.  You can't find them in stores right now either, so we're at a stalemate.  Sitting next to the croton are two different sorts of pothos ivy.  One is a variegated white and green one but the other is just a plain old variegated yellow one.  I should have left him outside too, especially since there's an old wren nest in that pot.  I think I'd really rather have wrens than that old ivy.

So there!  I do bring provide some winter protection for some plants.  Now that I seem them all sadly arrayed in the house, I wonder why I bother.  Bah humbug to winter!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Santa Sent An Osprey!

Osprey defends his catch
I spotted this huge beauty from the freeway.  Ospreys aren't that common around here, particularly not in urban areas like Sugar Land, Texas.  And he was in good company. Quite a few waterbirds were gathered at a small, corporate "lake" within yards of US59: several cormorants, a great blue heron, white herons, ibises, and one quiet anhinga.  But the osprey dwarfed them all.

Distinctive dark brown line through the eye
Ospreys have a 6-foot wingspan and feed exclusively on fish.  They have specially adapted talons for  holding slippery prey.  It was almost as big a surprise to see a fish this big!  This osprey kept a tight hold on his fish, though crows harassed him and he was followed by a curious family on their way to Christmas Eve dinner.

Makes a musical, chirpy sound, not a screechy cackle
I love seeing extraordinary birds like this so close to home. I'm sure it's thrilling to go on birdwatching trips all over the world, but to me, there's something so gratifying about getting to know the local birds and being surprised every now and again but uncommon visitors like the osprey. 

Sometimes called a "Sea Eagle"
I will say it helps immensely to have a designated driver on these highway birdwatching adventures!  Without the Chief Engineer's steady hand on the wheel, you'd probably be reading about me in the paper by now!  Merry Christmas and keep your eyes open -- you never know who's visiting your area today.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Foliage Friday: Yaupon 'Pride of Houston'

Okay, I'm cheating a little.  I love the plant not so much for its foliage, although it does have neat, trim little green leaves.  But the entire plant just says Christmas to me.

Yaupon 'Pride of Houston'

Yaupon 'Pride of Houston' (or Ilex vomitoria 'Pride of Houston') is an improved cultivar of our beautiful native yaupon holly.  It has a neat, upright growth habit, and many more berries than the unimproved variety.  To me, the trunk seems more white, which makes for a great contrast with the dark green, toothed leaves and the brilliant red berries.

'Pride of Houston,' like its native cousin, tolerates a wide array of light conditions, from full sun to mostly bright shade.  It's not picky either about soil and will grow in sand or clay.  It does tend to sucker, but makes a pretty multi-trunk shrub or small tree if left unpruned. 

I can say from personal experience that mockingbirds and cedar waxwings will love you for planting yaupon hollies!   

Note:  the dwarf yaupons sold as small, compact, evergreen pom-poms won't produce fruit -- they're sterile.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Camellia, Queen of the Southern Garden

I have a thing about camellias.  I don't have one in my garden, and I've been doing without since 1990.  Twenty years!  It surprises me to realize that it's been that long.  But 20 years ago, I had just the right camellia growing in just the right place, and I've never been the same since.

Camellia 'Shi Shi Gashira'
Camellias can be fussy customers here.  They seem to prefer a more acidic soil than I've got here in the river bottom.  They like bright shade, but not the north wind.  Not too much water, not too little.  No pruning,  Feeding after blooming, just like azaleas.  They can be susceptible to various fungal diseases like flower blight, and insect pests, like scales.  Moreover, they sometimes drop their flower buds for no apparent reason -- it's their way of complaining that conditions are no longer just right.

If I had never successfully grown camellias, I think I would be over them by now.  But I can't forget those huge old shrubs, over 8 feet tall, growing as if they hadn't a care in the world.  Of course, that garden was 25 miles away from here, and I'm sure the soil is better, and the high shade was preferable to what I've got.  Et cetera, et cetera. 

Meanwhile, I pine away like a jilted lover and long for my camellias.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Circle of Life -- Unintended Consequences

Preferred name: Giant Mouse
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, isn't that what they say?  But here's the back story, if you're interested.

Wildlife gardening
We love to feed the wild birds and try to keep a variety of feeders around the garden.  It's such a treat to see the perky little chickadees nibble on sunflower seeds.  We've enjoyed watching cardinals and wrens raise their families.  Witnessing the great hummingbird migration is a special turning point of the spring and fall season.  And lately, though they don't come to bird feeders, we've enjoyed a nightly chorus of owls, calling to each other back and forth in the late evening.

Not shy at all -- will hold his ground until the last second.
But.  There's a reason those owls are hanging around now.  These creatures, which I prefer to think of as giant mice, are also attracted to the birdseed we put out for our friends, the birds.  The giant mice don't realize they are unwanted.  It's a paradise on earth for them, until they're snatched up one evening by a hungry owl.

Where's an owl when you really need one?
Feeding the birds attracts giant mice -- bad.  But the giant mice in turn attract owls (good) and larger snakes (perhaps not so good).  In my heart, I know the answer.  Don't put out birdseed,  Rely on native plantings to attract wildlife.  And accept that sometimes wildlife is just that: wild.  Sigh.  Mother Nature and her furry little team win again.  That is, until the owls come up to bat.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Foliage Friday: Variegated Aspidistra

Variegated Cast Iron Plant
Or Aspidistra elatior variegata.  I have a thing for variegated plants, particularly white shades.  I have been so pleased with this variegated Aspidistra, which was the centerpiece in a summer arrangement with caladiums, pink sweet potato vine and pentas. 

Aspidistra elatior variegata
Some gardeners around here look down their noses at Aspidistra.  It's common, they sniff.  Overused.  Uninteresting.  But perhaps they haven't seen the striking variegated version.  Just as tough as the solid green "Cast Iron Plant," variegated aspidistra performs well in light shade and can burn if scorched by the hot rays of the afternoon sun.

Fancy in white stripes
It's rather slow-growing, which makes it a perfect addition to a container garden.  Although it's well-adapted to our zone 9A winters, frost can burn new growth.  I admit, I've never had this problem, since mine is growing under the protective canopy of a live oak.  Aspidistra is very drought-tolerant once established and if you can bear to cut the pretty variegated leaves, you can use them in bouquets indoors.  The leaves last a long time in vases.  The only trouble I've ever had with aspidistra?  Snails.  In this world, I'll never escape them.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy Belated Bloom Day!

I don't know what I was thinking, to miss the Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.  It's graciously hosted by Carol at May Dream Gardens and I'm usually on the ball enough to participate.  But today, a day late and a dollar short!

Welcome to the Scrooge edition of Bloom Day!  No, I'm not in a bad mood.  I just couldn't shake the feeling that the garden was showing me a glimpse of the past, present and future.

Here's the ghost of garden past, the spare, spent look of blossoms just going to seed.  Accompanied by the wild tropical remnants of Hurricane Bougainvillea!


Here's the ghost of garden present, the few bright winter annuals I planted this year.

Pink Dianthus.  Forgot to deadhead!
White Dianthus, which I like better.
Faithful penta.
Popcorny Snapdragons

Here's the ghost of garden future, new buds and hopeful beginnings.

Rose 'Spice'
Rose 'Valentine'
Australian Rosemary (Westringia fruticosa)

Happy Bloom Day, and be sure to check out the wonderful posts at May Dreams Gardens!  Thanks again, Carol, for hosting!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Green Stink Bug

It's December 14, and still not enough winter to slow down the Green Stink Bug.  This little rascal has many different host plants, and is always hanging around my garden somewhere.  And even though we've had two light freezes, he still soldiers on, sucking the life out of whatever plant he feeds on.  And they're prolific!  Each adult female produces on average over 250 eggs, though she completes her life cycle in as little as two months.

Green Stink Bug
Stink bugs have piercing mouthparts and damage plants by sucking juices from young tender growth and developing fruit.  They always seem to have an eye out for my tomatoes, and I struggle to control them in the spring.  You'd think by now, when we're covering the ripening tomatoes against early frosts and freezes, that the stink bugs would be overwintering elsewhere, but here they still are.  As ever.  Yuck.

By the way, the best control I've found is just to squash them, stink and all.  I've not had good success with organic methods.  I think they're tougher than I am!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Humble Garden, Heavenly Sight

Driving around at 9:00 am, in a very modest neighborhood close to my house, I came across a waterfall of pink flowers that were fairly throwing themselves over a wooden fence.  After a careful look around, I hopped out to take a few pictures, which always makes me a little nervous, to tell the truth.

Podranea ricasoliana
But I love these serendipitous moments.  You'll see some lovely things on garden club tours, but if you keep your eyes open, any neighborhood can surprise you.  Someone in this simple little house carefully planted a flowering vine in just the right spot and was rewarded with this stunning show.  I picture a sweet motherly type in a housecoat, who got her pink trumpet vine from her family in the Valley.  She may have bought it at a nursery, but it's a plant we don't often see for sale.  So I imagine her carrying her little cutting home wrapped in wet paper towels and aluminum foil.  Only she called it "tin foil."

Also known as Pink Trumpet Vine
She planted it never knowing its botanical name, Podranea ricasoliana.  But her own mother told her to plant it in a sunny spot, give it plenty of water in the summer, and plenty of room.  It's a vigorous vine, like its orange cousin, Campsis radicans.  And like the orange trumpet vine, it blooms in late fall, offering the migrating hummingbirds one last sip of nectar before they head south for the winter.

Glorious in the late fall
She was relieved when her pretty vine came roaring back from last winter's freeze.  She needn't have worried -- Podranea is root hardy even a zone north of us.  She'll be enjoying this beautiful vine for years to come, and passing along her own carefully wrapped cuttings.

Cheerful cup-shaped faces
My thanks to this unknown gardener, for providing me with not only a cheery surprise but a story that inspired my gardening heart.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Visit From An Aztec Warrior

I've been waiting for this!  Caracaras are not uncommon here, but I never seem to have my camera ready.  This beautiful member of the falcon family obliged me by sitting quietly in the morning sun, waiting to have his picture taken.

Crested Caracara, watching the morning pass by.
The Caracara is the national bird of Mexico and you can see why: it has an almost stylized appearance.  To see one sitting on a pole like this is wonderful, but it is incredible to watch one fly low over a meadow or land, with those huge feet outstretched, on a poor, unsuspecting mouse.  Once you see a Caracara, you'll never mistake it for any other bird of prey.

Mexican Coat of Arms.  Look familiar?
Caracaras are also known to feed on carrion and have a widely varied diet.  It prefers open grasslands, where it can keep a sharp eye out for dinner, and only ventures as far north as Texas, Arizona and Florida.  Although it's common here, I understand it's becoming more rare in Florida as habitat disappears. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Foliage Friday: Mahonia 'Soft Caress'

Mahonia 'Soft Caress'
I'm excited about this plant.  You're probably familiar with the more traditional mahonias.  Around here, they are very dependable shade plants.  Chinese mahonia get about 5' tall, and, though they have slender leaves, are rather spiny and tough.  Leatherleaf mahonia is even more spiny, having a holly-shaped leaf and a rough-looking, coarse texture.  I always thought I should like them.  They are fairly drought-tolerant and extremely dependable for most people.  But that spiny texture always disagreed with me.  I just could never warm to mahonia.

Mahonia 'Soft Caress'
Until I saw this beautiful Mahonia eurybracteata 'Soft Caress,' whose elegant, bamboo-like leaves are so inviting.  This one was developed by ItSaul Plants, and is more similar to Chinese mahonia.  It's also evergreen, and a little smaller, reaching only about 3 feet tall.  It has yellow flowers, arranged in racemes, but I love it for its delicate leaves.  It seems so much more friendly than other mahonia -- makes you just want to pet it, doesn't it?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

We Got A Freeze After All

Not a very hard freeze.  It was 30° at the Sugar Land airport when I got up at 5:30 Wednesday morning.  Which means it probably got to 30° in some unprotected parts of my garden too.  And a hard frost! I know it's a problem for gardeners, but I love the sparkle of the first hard frosts.  I took a drive before the frost had melted, but after the bright sun was shining.  Gorgeous!  Our version of winter beauty: bright, clear, dark blue sky (in the summer, the sky bleaches to almost white), golden grasses, sparkly frost, a few yellow leaves.  It's a stark beauty, one you have to get used to.  But I love it.

Ouch!  Tomato forest gets stung again.
In the garden, the tops of the tomato forest burned a bit more.  I don't think the plants will die, and I don't think it will harm the tomatoes.  I'm just waiting for a few to begin to ripen!  I think I'm almost there.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed we don't get a really terrible freeze before that happens.  On the other hand, I didn't cover them.  I'm resigned, either way.

Nasturtiums show only minor damage
The nasturtiums got a bit of a snap, too.  I don't know, really, whether the frost or dehydration got these leaves.  It was very windy Tuesday ahead of the cold front.  Extremely windy!

These are fine.
These too!
And these!
The lettuces don't notice light freezes and frosts, which made me wonder.  Why don't those tender looking leaves suffer in the cold and wind?  All the other plants I have with large leaves dehydrate so badly.  Where did lettuce originate, that it is so deceptively hardy?  I came across several answers: Egypt, Persia, Greece.  All relatively warm places.  So I ask you -- why does lettuce laugh at frost?

Snapdragons look like buttered popcorn!
And here is the reason I like to plant flowers in the vegetable garden.  It means I'm always successful! 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Frost Warning? I'm Just Sayin'...

You remember last year how, not only was there frost but SNOW on December 4th?

Cabbages fight it off!
I don't think it'll snow this week, but we've already had a frost at my house, and it looks likely for Tuesday night.  Frost can damage plants even if the air temperature doesn't actually get below freezing.  This always seems like a hard fact to accept here in semi-tropical zone 9A.  But this is the time of year for that sort of thing.  Plants aren't hardened off.  The weather changes rapidly from mild, sunny days to bleak, chilly days.  What to watch out for?  Calm, clear, dry nights.

No ill effects.
The heat absorbed by the earth is released or radiated into the atmosphere at night.  Clouds help keep that layer of heat closer to the surface of the earth, and slow the radiation.  Wind helps mix cold air and warm air, maintaining a bit warmer air than might otherwise occur on still nights.  And humidity slows temperature change.  We notice this most in the summer, when our hot humid nights barely cool down to 80° before it's time to heat up again in the morning.

Amaryllis soft tissue ruined, but plants survived.
Radiation frosts can occur even if the air temperatures remain above freezing.  What's happened?  The surface temperature of the plant has dropped below freezing, even though the air has not, and if sufficient moisture is in the air, ice crystals may form. 

Night photo of frost-bitten tomatoes
The frost last week got the top of the tomato forest, but overall the plants look okay.  I think it's best to leave frost or freeze-damaged foliage on the plant, to provide a bit of protection throughout the winter.  If I pruned back to live, healthy tissue, more of the plant would suffer damage in the next frost.  Yes, it's ugly. After I harvest the tomatoes, I'll pull them out.  But landscape plants are best left alone, unpruned, until March.  You don't want to encourage new growth midwinter, either.

We like to get all excited about winter here, because we get so little of it!  I imagine those zone 4 and 5 gardeners are laughing at us right now, worrying about our little frosts.  That's okay -- I chuckle to myself when they complain about humidity!