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.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Garden Style

I've been wondering lately who's responsible for the direction of garden trends.  Are plant breeders driving this?  Magazines?  Commercial landscapes?  Somehow gardeners all get the same idea at the same time -- where does it come from?

For a while now, the trend has been for compact, evergreen shrubs with lots and lots of flowers.  I've noticed a steady "dwarfication" of old standards and an emphasis on outlandish color schemes.  Sometimes I like it -- the 'Peve Minaret' Baldcypress is a dwarfing version of the native baldcypress and I love it for its bonsai appeal in the garden.  But sometimes I'm not sure what the point is.  How many different dwarfing versions of nandina do we need? 

I'm curious: is this is just a local thing?  Do people in Wisconsin or North Carolina or Maine shop for compact evergreen shrubs that flower all the time?  They probably do in Florida and California.  More research is clearly required!

This is 'Peve Minaret,' a dwarf Baldcypress.  Height estimates vary from 8' to 20'.  
Still, a good deal shorter than the traditional form and highly ornamental, too!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Update on the Straw Bale Garden

Well I was so excited back in March to set up my straw bale garden. It seemed like such a neat and tidy way to create a raised, well-draining garden without all the trouble.  I arranged four bales of hay (I couldn't find straw) in a square pattern with a hole in the middle.  Then I poured one bag of compost into the middle, and spread three more on the surface of the hay bales.  For ten days, I watered with a dilute solution of fish-emulsion fertilizer, to "begin the decomposition process."  Here's how it looked before the fertilizing started, on March 28:
Don't you love it?  It's very neat and tidy.  Ten days later, I planted seeds, 'Purple Queen' bush beans in the back and 'Cocozelle' summer squash in the front.  I figured it might be hard to keep them watered.  The instructions I read said to use a soaker hose, so I installed one and crossed my fingers.

April warmed up nicely here, and I had good germination.  Both the beans and the squash began to flower well. It's true I had to water every single day, though.  When the seedlings were small, the soaker hose wasn't ideal.  The water would run right through the hay bales, straight down, and never really spread out.  Unless the hose were almost touching the seedling, it didn't get watered.  But I persevered.

As April drifted into May, the plants got bigger and bigger.  The soaker hose was essential, and even still, it was hard to keep the plants well-watered.  May was one of the warmest on record here in the Houston area, and it will show up on my water bill.  I believe it rained once during the month, over a weekend. 

All that water, though, had a terrible side effect on the straw bale garden.  The hay that formed the foundation began to rot and collapse but unevenly.  The top surface of the garden was no longer level, and watering became even more problematic.  Even using the soaker hose wouldn't work:  water ran to the low areas, causing them to sink even more, and leaving the high areas completely dry.  The picture below doesn't really show the collapse in progress, but it's the best one I took.

I think I harvested a grand total of 9 beans.  Although I had lots  of flowers, I can only find one squash in that mess.  I believe this experiment is rapidly headed for the compost heap! 

Note to self:  even bush beans would be better with a trellis or some sort of support.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Problem of Scale

Not the insect -- the relative size of things.  This is something that's been bothering me in the garden lately.   Everywhere I look, even (especially?) in my own garden, things are out of proportion.  Most often, things strike me as entirely too small, even for smallish suburban lots.

Something that's particularly odd is the penchant for very small little flowerbeds, filled with very small, short flowers, ringing big old live oak or pecan trees.  These trees have a diameter of at least 15 inches and that's about the width of the little circlet surrounding them.  It looks like a tiny ankle sock.

I've also become more aware of people requesting very short plants at work.  I think many of them wish to create a multi-layered effect, with taller plants in the back, medium-sized ones in the middle and short  ones in the front.  But too often, the "tall" plant is only 18" high!  Their idea is that the "tall" ones are 18" and they'd like two rows staggered in front of that.  First, I don't know that you can rely on any plants to grow perfectly to the exact size, with less than a six-inch tolerance.  And even if you could, you sure wouldn't see much of the plants, just 6" peeking out from the row in front.  Why not pick a 3 foot plant for the back, or what the heck?  Even 5 feet!

Now to get back to my own garden and perhaps my own prejudice, in the back yard, everything I have seems tall.  The tone is set by the Louisiana irises (there are many).  They're all about 3-4 feet tall, and so are the amaryllis, and so are the phlox, and so are the daylilies and so are the roses and the African irises.  Moreover, the gingers that froze back to the ground last winter are just now (you guessed it) 3-4 feet tall.  So everything seems tall in my garden and short in the world at large.  I'm sure that should tell me something about myself, but I'm too tired to figure it out!

(Red Abyssinian Banana, currently between 3 and 4 feet tall.  Of course.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Coral Bean Tree

(Coral Bean Tree, at Fort Bend County Master Gardener Display Garden)

This fiery flower is a cross between the native Texas Coral Bean (Erythrina herbacea) and the South American Fireman's Cap (Erythrina crista-galli).  Although damaged in the freeze, this mature specimen recovered very well.  The flowers don't open quite as fully as those of the Fireman's Cap, but I love its brilliant red color. 

Coral Bean Tree blooms all summer, and its crimson flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds, making for quite a stunning show.  Although the stems are soft when the plant is young, as it ages, it develops a barky trunk that protects it from the cold and makes it more upright.  Mature plants are said to tolerate temperatures in the low 20s, but as you can see, this one survived temperatures in the high teens.  They are mostly evergreen in mild winters but can lose their leaves completely in cold weather.  Plant in a sunny or most sunny area and you'll be rewarded with a large shrub or small tree than can reach heights of up to 20 feet.  See the Coral Bean Tree at the Fort Bend County Master Gardeners' Display Garden, 1402 Band Road, Rosenberg, TX 77471.

The botanical name for this plant comes from the Greek word for red, erythros.  The "bidwillii" part probably is named after John Carne Bidwill, an English botanist noted for his work in New Zealand in the mid-19th century.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Pleasing Perennial

Sometimes perennial bloomers are a disappointment in the garden:  it's true they live longer than one season, but they often have a short bloom season or require lots of maintenance to keep looking their best.  Not this one!

Pavonia is a perennial that performs.  This hardy little plant seems to bloom from late spring until frost, and never gets unruly.  George Miller, in his book Landscaping with Native Plants of Texas, writes that pavonia grows to 4 feet tall, with slender, spreading branches and dark green, heart-shaped leaves.  He suggests planting pavonia with silktassel, agarita and lantana, or perhaps Texas Mountain Laurel, Texas persimmon or evergreen sumac.  Though a short-lived perennial, it tends to reseed if left to its own devices.

This native Texan is suitable for planting in full sun, full shade and everything in between, although I think it blooms better with more sun.  It is cold hardy to 10-20 degrees.  Mine didn't return from last winter's hard freeze, but it was a few years old.  It is easy to propagate from fresh seeds or softwood cuttings. Pavonia is also known as rock rose, rose pavonia or rose mallow.  Look for it at your local independent garden center in the late spring and summer.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Dwarf Cherry 'Hiromi' Really Delivers

This little shrub, Prunus jacquemontii 'Hiromi,' is perhaps my favorite plant in the garden.  In late February, it is covered with double-pink blossoms, all along its upright branches.  It's been such a reliable spring bloomer, but was exceptional this year, when we certainly got all the chill hours we needed!  I have it planted in a spot that gets morning sun, and it has grown slowly but steadily for the past three or four years since I planted it.  I love the spring flowers -- as close as we're likely to get to the famous cherry blossoms of festival-fame. 

But I also love what comes later -- the tiny cherries.  They are edible, if a bit tart.  Because they are so tiny, the stone is relatively large.  But it's not a problem for the mockingbirds!  As soon as the cherries begin to ripen, we watch and wait for the mockingbirds to figure it out.  When they decide the cherries are ready, they feast on them, sometimes two and three birds in the same tree.  You can see how the branches that were upright are now weeping over with the weight of the cherries. 

I can't decide which is better, the lovely pink flowers or the mockingbird circus that follows!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Harvest Day!

Today we harvested some of our spring vegetables!  This is the first batch of potatoes (White Kennebec), one small red onion, one ripe tomato (Early Goliath) and one cucumber (Straight Eight).  We also picked one little jalapeno pepper.  There are more peppers on the bushes, and more potatoes, but we didn't want to pick more than we could eat right away.  We made a salad with the tomato and red onion and we're saving those little potatoes for something (I don't know what!)

Did you notice the green tomato?  I wanted to write a little about a certain garden pest that damages tomatoes in this way.  The tomato has been removed from the vine, its skin punctured from the outside, and then left in the back yard.  Do you have trouble with this common garden pest?

Ours is Griffin, a &*%#& dog, who apparently thinks we are growing tennis balls on little bushes in cages, just for him.

Friday, May 21, 2010

White Alder Flower

 Or Cuban Buttercup or Turnera subulata.  This pretty little flower opens in the morning and tends to close in the hot afternoon sun. Its cousin, the yellow turnera, or Yellow Alder Flower, or Turnera ulmifolia, seems to leave its flowers open for longer during the day.

(Yellow Alder Flower photo courtesy UpstateNYer, via Wikimedia Commons)

But I can't help it.  I love the little face of the white flower.  This charming Zone 9 perennial grow to about 2' in height and is native to the West Indies and Brazil.  The yellow ones, especially, can be invasive in climates like South Florida or Hawaii, but here in Zone 9A, they should eventually freeze back.  Both varieties root easily from cuttings and are normally available at independent nurseries in the summer.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

There's Landscaping, Then There's Gardening

I have been reading about the Garden Walk in Buffalo, New York.  And it just dawned on me that here in my deed-restricted, planned community, I could never do the sort of creative, inventive gardening that you see in Buffalo.  Why not?  The Homeowner's Association would never allow it.  Let's just put aside for a moment their objection to thousands of visitors.  Our Association could never tolerate the creativity.

Here, we're all about landscaping.  But gardening?  Not so much.  The goal appears to be to maintain the look of the original "builder" landscaping, which is about as inventive as the gardening at the local Holiday Inn.  So we can have dwarf yaupons pruned into little gumdrops.  We can have Japanese ligustrum, overgrown into trees, smashed against the front of the house.  We can have neatly manicured carpets of thirsty St. Augustinegrass, as green as the Emerald City.  But don't even think about xeriscape. Asian gardens. Native gardens. Meadow grasses. Organic edible gardens. Cutting flower gardens. Woodland gardens. Contemplation gardens. Gardens for children. Gardens for the differently-abled. Water gardens. English gardens.  Mind that you don't somehow inject personality into your front yard space! 

I know, I know.  I've memorized the usual rebuttal.  It's all about "preserving property values."  But I imagine the Garden Walk in Buffalo has actually improved not only property values but community values, too.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

After the Rain, the Rain Lilies

We were all so lucky to get rain over the weekend.  But some of us were luckier still -- we got rain lilies.  This pretty little flower, native to somewhere in the New World Tropics, has been a passalong plant for decades in the south.  It thrives in full sun, partial sun or very high shade.  Rain lilies bloom in the late spring through late summer, particularly after a dry spell and a thorough rain.  They grow from bulbs which multiply fairly rapidly, and produce trumpet-shaped flowers on 6-8" stems, in shades of pink, yellow, white and red.  They have a pretty, delicate grass-like foliage that will remind you of liriope.  In fact, I have some rain lilies planted in amongst the liriope -- it makes for a nice surprise after a summer shower.

It's hard to trick rain lilies into blooming.  I have heard if you thoroughly drench them during a dry spell, they will often respond with blooms.  But they are very reliable bloomers after an actual rainstorm.  There's so much that happens during a rainstorm that doesn't happen when we water, even if we use collected rainwater.  Although I have no evidence for it at all, I think they must be sensitive to the temperature drop or changes in atmospheric pressure.

Look for rain lilies where southern bulbs are sold, in catalogs, or occasionally in independent garden centers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Daylily Display Garden

Mr. Garrett talks to Master Gardeners in his daylily display garden.

Yesterday Loris Garrett hosted members of the Fort Bend County Master Gardeners at his home and beautiful daylily display garden.  Mr. Garrett has been working with daylilies since 1998 and is a member of the American Hemerocallis Society and the Lone Star Daylily Society.  His display garden is in Cypress, Texas and it is outstanding!  Mr. Garrett and his wife Karen have incorporated their daylilies into a large, suburban garden.  The daylilies were all neatly labeled, but the garden itself was also beautifully designed.  It was so much more interesting than just rows and rows of daylilies.

(The little tree on the left is a dwarf bald cypress, about 9 years old.)

Mr. Garrett recommends organic fertilizers and leaf mold compost.  He has been experimenting with Milorganite -- apparently armadillos don't like the smell of it!  (This was news to me!)  He uses Nickel Plus as a dip to prevent the spread of daylily rust and as a spray when new growth first starts, every 4 weeks, alternating with BannerMaxx, Cabrio or Daconil.

I took far too many pictures to put in this little article.  Here are the daylily photos on Flickr!  Thanks to Loris and Karen Garrett for a wonderful visit!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Learned Something New Today!

These are the seedlings of a Mexican Fan Palm, or Washingtonia robusta.  They were growing by the hundreds in a flowerbed under the parent palm tree, looking for all the world like weeds.  I had never seen palm tree seedlings before.  I wish you could feel the texture of them.  They look like grass, but the leaf is much stiffer, almost like a little dracaena. 

All palm trees are grown from seeds, although much work is being done to try to propagate them vegetatively.  Mexican Fan Palms are apparently easy to grow from seed, and will germinate at temperatures between about 75 and 85 degrees F, in a very short time, perhaps two weeks.  That's good news for seed starters -- some palm trees require weeks at temperatures in excess of 100 degrees!

I may plant these little babies, just to see what happens.  I've never been a palm person, but since so many of them froze back this winter, I've been trying to learn more about them.  We'll see how they turn out!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Let's Think About It For A Minute

Let's just put aside my general frustration with gardeners who want "all color, all the time."  What is really getting under my skin are gardeners who want lots of bright color all year long, in the shadeUsing only native Texas plants. 

Somehow, "native" has come to be synonymous with "carefree."  Of course, this is not true.  Dogwoods are native to Texas and do poorly in our zone 9 humid, hot climate.  They are much better adapted to the forests of East Texas.  Just because something is native to Texas doesn't mean it thrives in the urban/suburban environment here.  After all, plants aren't native to cities at all. 

And somehow, I think the whole concept of shade has escaped people.  Imagine a peaceful walk in the shade of a native forest.  There is very little color there, aside from green and brown. Of course, you'll see the occasional flash of red, purple, pink or white.  Maybe even, if you're lucky, yellow.  But the temperate forest isn't a riot of color naturally.  Even the tropical rainforest is a mostly green affair.

Which is why we import plants from foreign lands.  Why we hybridize plants in pursuit of outlandish color.  Even in the shade. So pick any two:  native, shade-loving, colorful, frost tolerant, drought tolerant, heat tolerant, flowering, dwarf, evergreen.  Pick more than two and your search query may return no results.

Photo courtesy Kurt Stueber via Wikimedia Commons.
This is Turk's Cap, or Malvaviscus arboreus.  It is native to Texas (1), tolerates shade (2), displays occasional color (3), is cold tolerant (4), heat tolerant (5), and moderately drought tolerant (6).  Unfortunately, it is not a dwarf and it is not evergreen. Oh well!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Bloom Day, May 15, 2010

Happy Bloom Day - it's raining here and I am so relieved.  Last night we got almost 2 inches and more is forecast for today and tomorrow.  That will really help relieve the symptoms of emerging drought.
I love May!  There are so many flowers, it's hard to know where to start.  The daylilies are starting to really kick in.  These are English Witch and Betty Warren Woods (yellows) and Tovarich and King Lamoni (reds), plus one little yellow one with a very traditional flower that has lost its tag.  I'm still waiting on more to bloom.  I'm trying to limit myself to reds and yellows.  In our old house, I had 28 different varieties, but we just don't have room here.

Also blooming are newly planted Cora series vincas.  This one is the spreading variety, called Polka Dot.  I like vincas (or periwinkles) but I would only plant disease-resistant varieties like Cora.  We've had terrible problems with fungal diseases over the years.

And I've replanted pentas here and there in my garden.  Most winters, at least some of them survive, but not this one.  Oh well!  They grow fast.  They'll be great favorites of the butterflies and hummingbirds soon.

I have some annual phlox that's been reseeding since the fall of 2008.  It's crept over into the vegetable garden, but I'm leaving it there for color.  It keeps this one old snapdragon company.  This one also reseeded.
One of my old standbys, purple oxalis, is almost always blooming.  I think it's funny -- I regard the green-leafed one as a terrible nuisance of a weed, but I like the purple one.  It's just as aggressive, too. We bought one plant almost 20 years ago.  Now it's everywhere.

Almost as aggressive is this gladiolus. I don't know what the variety is.  It was a freebie with a bulb order maybe 5 or 6 years ago.  I've dug hundreds of bulblets and given them away or thrown them away, but there's always more.  I like them, but they are floppy and I don't have time to stake flowers that won't stand on their own!

I've been enjoying the butterflies this spring.  They seem to particularly like the coreopsis and, of course, the milkweed.  It's been a great year for coreopsis.  I think it actually is blooming a little earlier than it usually does.  I looked back through some old notes and apparently, at least in 2006, it was just struggling along.  Now it's lush!

I still have roses blooming. Not so much as before, but Cinco de Mayo is hanging in there.  I like the odd smoky orange color.  The pink indigofera still has a few shabby looking flowers, but the pictures made them look even more sad than they really are, so I left them out.  I do have Arrowwood Viburnum blooming, and the last flowers of these little Daisy gardenias.

The last of the really pretty amaryllis are blooming, along with the Easter lilies.  They really only started blooming on Mother's Day.  This year they look a little peaked to me.  The amaryllis is 'Susan.'

The calendulas and calla lilies are probably also on their last legs.  I like calendulas and often they reseed for me, if I don't get too impatient and replant something else there entirely.

The vegetable and herb garden are really showing off flowers!  I have squash (Cocozelle), cucumbers (Straight Eight), green beans (Purple Queen), and tomatoes (Grape and Early Goliath) blooming, along with dill and society garlic!

And the prettiest flowers this May are the spring-blooming cosmos, the 'Mercer Blue' thunbergia and the mandevilla.  The mandevilla is prettier still because I had to winter it over (and I hate to do that!)

Happy Bloom Day!