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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Gardening Errors

Recently,  I was trimming the fig ivy back from the windows (again!) and it occurred to me that I keep repeating the same mistakes.  When I reflect on my habits as a gardener, I see that my personality flaws determine, to a large extent, what I'm up to in the garden.

We'll stick to the garden in this discussion: don't worry.  There won't be too much psychodrama!

I have trouble in my garden with the same things, time and again, mainly because I overestimate the extent of my own power to control things.  That fig ivy?  I was warned.  But no!  I believed I could easily keep it in check.  The Norfolk Island Pine, that died a horrible death in this winter's freeze?  I knew it was a Zone 10 plant, but I thought I could keep it warm, up close by the brick wall on the south side of my house.  That pretty calibrachoa basket, resembling tiny baby petunias?  I knew it wasn't a heat-tolerant plant, but I SWORE I could keep it alive, in the partial shade under a big maple tree.  Not.  You see where I'm headed with this, don't you?  The large tree planted too close to the fence?  The plants getting too much sun, or too much shade, or too much water, or not enough water?  I did all that on purpose, really.

Norfolk Island Pine - Pre-freeze!

I could go on and on, but I won't.  I'll just say that I'm trying to escape this Gardener's Groundhog Day in which I find myself.  Trying to accept the fact that I am not, after all, in charge of the whole wide world.  (At least not the outside world!)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Seeds: Heirloom or Hybrid?

Hi, my name's Elizabeth and I'm a compulsive reader of seed catalogs.  I thought I had it under control until I went to Chicago for the IGC Show and not only collected more catalogs, but also material about whole seed displays!  And to make matters more difficult, I find I'm in deep spiritual conflict about seeds.

Just the beginning...

On the one hand, I love the whole narrative behind the heirloom seeds movement.  I love the retro packaging.  I love the outlandish names of the old varieties.  I never want these old varieties to become extinct.  I think open-pollinated is the way to go, and I'm very suspicious of rules that prohibit propagation from collected seeds.  The very essence of heirloom seeds is something that resonates with me emotionally, and in a big way.  Plus, I also have a sense of nostalgia about the taste of heirloom vegetables, although this is probably all in my head. 

Beauty Queen Tomato, courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

On the other hand (and there's always another hand, isn't there?)...

Plant breeders have done so much wonderful work to improve disease and insect resistance, quality, germination rates and productivity.  The new varieties of vegetables are often far easier to grow than the heirlooms, especially if you're trying to minimize the use of chemicals in the garden.  Smaller, more compact hybrids are a better fit than heirlooms for smaller, more compact gardens.  Heat tolerance is a biggie where I live too -- Southeast Texas isn't exactly the birthplace of North American agriculture and heirloom varieties are often unable to withstand our climate.  There's a reason why plant breeders try so hard to improve on original varieties, after all. 

BHN-444, resistant to spotted wilt virus
(Photo: Johnny's Selected Seeds)

I think it's a tricky issue for a retailer, too.  It's easy to sell the heirloom mystique, especially when the seed packets are so nicely done.  But my sense is that gardeners will be more successful with improved varieties (of most vegetables).  Many retailers have space and inventory dollars for only one line of seeds.  Which would you recommend?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Finally! The Dancing Ladies Are Here!

I've been waiting for them all summer!  This is Globba winitii, or Dancing Ladies, a little ginger perfect for the shady garden.  The pretty purple bracts sway in the breeze like dancing girls.  The little yellow parts are the actual flowers.  I think this ginger has a more delicate appearance than other members of the family.  The leaves are still lance-shaped, but soft and droopy, although the plant is upright.

Globba winitii

This ginger seems to be fairly hardy -- I've heard reports of it surviving in a Zone 8 climate.  It's dormant in the winter, which helps provide some winter protection.  In my garden, it's one of the last things to emerge.  After 5 years, I finally remember where it is, and I've stopped trying to plant other things on top of it!  I keep it evenly moist (not too dry, but definitely not wet) and it gets a touch of morning sun, but no hot afternoon sun.  I guess you can divide the clumps but I'm not going to!  It doesn't spread very rapidly at all, unlike some thuggish gingers I know (you know who you are, Mr. Variegated Ginger!)

Usually it flowers in July and I was worried about it.  I thought maybe the winter ruined the summer blooms.  But no!  Here they are, just a little bit behind schedule.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Spunky, Punky Celosia

August in Houston.  This is the kind of weather that makes or breaks a gardener.  Frankly, I'd just as soon skip the whole entire month.  We hear rumors that up North, gardeners clean tools and read seed catalogs in the winter.  Well, that's what we'd like to do in August, except we can't.  We have to water.  Sometimes twice a day, for certain finicky container plants.

Celosia 'Punky Red'

But one little celosia has performed yeoman's duty this summer.  It is Celosia spicata and I'm almost certain that the variety is 'Punky Red.'  Almost certain, because (of course) I threw away the seed packet.  My daughter and I planted it in June after the cool-season annuals had conked out.  Here is our highly scientific method, so that you may duplicate our success:

First, seven-year-old assistant pours all the seeds into her hand.  Then, assistant tosses the entire handful in the flowerbed, all in the same spot.  Finally, elder gardener attempts to spread them out a bit with a hand rake.  That's it!  I don't even think we really watered there because for most of the summer, sunflowers clogged up the scene.  Now that the sunflowers have faded, the celosia are sprawling all over everything, entangling themselves with turnera, pavonia and soapwort.  Not too tidy, but it's a bright spot in our August-blasted garden.

Celosia - perfect summer flower

I'm going to get an iced tea now.  Whew!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Foliage Friday: Arborvitae

All right, all right.  I promise after today, I'll try not to rave about foliage plants that might not do all that well here in good old hot, humid Houston.  But I think arborvitae is such a handsome plant!

Arborvitae at the Gardens at Ball
'Arborvitae' means 'Tree of Life,' so called because some specimens can live for centuries.  The aromatic leaves were also used for healing purposes.  They are often planted in cemeteries -- probably a good place for them.  They look best when left alone and don't tolerate pruning very well.  There are only five species in this genus: two are native to North America and three to Asia.  The North American native, Thuja occidentalis, was one of the first conifers imported into Europe, arriving on those shores sometime around 1536.

These plants are now known botanically as Thuja, but it's a relatively recent development.  I chuckled to read of the English distress when Linnaeus changed the name from "arborvitae" to "thuja" in 1737.  I'm afraid gardeners today get just as aggravated when botanists go around changing the name of plants.  We don't get used to things that fast!  I find I'm much more comfortable with arborvitae and it's been almost 300 years since the name was changed.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Who Is The Customer?

Now that everyone's home from the IGC Show in Chicago, there are some interesting conversations going on.  We're all trying to digest what we saw and heard, trying to apply what we learned to our own situations.

There seems to be a bit of a "style vs. substance" debate going on amongst the gardening intelligentsia.  Marketers describe merchandising the outdoor room and talk about reframing gardening as a lifestyle activity.  True believers react in shock and horror when garden centers stock more decorative doodads than seeds.  Social media experts advise us to reach out to Gen Y.  Consultants speak instead of "ageless marketing."

I think there's been too much focus on what we wish our independent garden centers were, rather than what they are, or even what they could be.  I don't think we'll see a one-size-fits-all approach:  what suits a small urban store probably won't work on the rural/suburban outstkirts.  And local competition, like it or not, also shapes the strategies of each IGC owner.

One thing is certain: the IGC must be profitable, and that means paying more attention to what customers want to buy than to what we may think they should have.  Sure, there's a great opportunity in our business to educate folks about earth-friendly practices.  I believe it's not only part of our mission but a major competitive advantage we have over our big-box competitors.

But you have to meet people where they are.  Frankly, some of my colleagues have some pretty condescending attitudes toward their potential customers.  Especially if said customer has a different idea of what a garden should be.  The best strategy has always been simply finding out what your own particular customers desire, and figuring out a way to deliver it.  Profitably.  Kindly.  And perhaps with just a bit of edification on the side.

IGC = Independent Garden Center, as opposed to 
chain retailers or big-box stores.  Sorry for the jargon!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quite A Storm Last Night!

It was a typical summertime thunderstorm: lightning, high winds, reports of hail.  At the worst of the storm, over 100,000 customers were without power.  As soon as it was over, we all went outside to inspect the damage, particularly to our trees.  My family was lucky -- all our trees were just fine.  Others were not so fortunate.  Trees were pushed over by the wind, sheared off at the top, and split down the middle. 

Pecan in ill health before the storm.

I noticed that all the neighbors seemed to know which trees were likely to be damaged in such a storm.  People knew what to look for, even if they didn't know the technical terms.  Leaning trees, rotting trees, trees with uneven canopies.

Didn't fall this time.
It's hard to remove a tree, especially a large one.  We come to regard them as members of the family.  And removing any tree can be expensive.  But sometimes, the tree really must go.  Not removing a problem tree can certainly cause problems later on!

Needs to come down pronto!
This tree didn't fall only because it is leaning on a neighboring tree.  Soil mounding like this indicates a problem with the root system.  This tree also had twig dieback, dead wood in the crown, and fewer leaves than you'd expect in mid-summer.

This tree is in jeopardy too.  Notice the roots exposed on the right side of the tree?  And how drastically it's leaning?  Luckily for the homeowner, it's leaning away from the house.

Split hackberry
Weak-wooded or fast-growing trees can sometimes fail without warning.  I don't know that there was much this homeowner could have done about this tree.

Sick old pecan

But the tree above had been failing for years.  It's an old pecan that had lost most of its major limbs.  The only green leaves on this tree can from water sprouts.  Earlier in the summer, the homeowner had a tree specialist remove much of the dead  wood.  For some reason, the tree trunk itself was preserved.  It was essentially a very tall pole, more than 40 feet tall.  A tree that had such obvious problems above the ground certainly has problems below ground, too.  You can see how the roots just failed in the storm.  And this was without a true crown or canopy to catch the wind.


When we first bought our house, there was a fat old ash tree in the front yard.  It had an interesting shape and it did provide shade, but it was rotten to the core.  It was only being supported by the cambium layer, and an incomplete layer at that.  An accident waiting to happen!

On a side note:  I was astonished at how quickly my neighbors got out there and cleaned up their tree debris.  Even though the power did not return here until late, most of the tree limbs were neatly stacked on the curb this morning for the garbage collection.  Wow!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Good News!

Really.  Even though today, as of this writing, is on track to be 100°, it really is getting cooler.  We can't feel it yet, but the days are getting shorter.  Today, sunset is exactly 13 hours after sunrise.  One month ago, the day was 13 hours and 43 minutes long.  Don't laugh!  It's the longer nights that helps the soil begin to cool down.  In just a few weeks, we will be able to see our gardens breathe a sigh of relief.

Fall Container at Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery & Garden Center

And speaking of fall gardens, are you going to rush out and buy mums?  I'm not.  I like ornamental peppers better.  The foliage is tidy, the flowers, though small, are cute and the fruit is vividly colored, right up until we get the first freeze.  I've had ornamental peppers return after mild winters with no problem.  The hot colors are perfect with ornamental grasses and cool-season annuals (when it gets much cooler!).  Try a container of peppers, 'Jade Princess' millet, creeping jenny and dianthus.  You'll have outstanding fall color for much longer than your mums would last.

Ornamental Pepper 'Black Pearl'
Ornamental Pepper 'Explosive Blast'' (I think!)
Ornamental Pepper (unknown variety)

Here's a Day Length calculator that works for all US cities and towns.  Believe!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Honey Birds

This year's crew
 That's what my daughter called them, until she grew worldly and wise at the age of 6.  The great hummingbird migration is in full swing around here.  Birds are, for the most part, flying south for the winter.  There are always a few that stick around, so we try to keep our feeders clean and full all year. 

NOT a Red-Necked Hummingbird!  Those are something else entirely!

These photographs were taken with the Wingscapes Birdcam, a wonderful toy I got for Christmas three years ago.  Otherwise, I'd never have been able to capture them.  We mostly have Ruby-Throated, Rufous and Black-Chinned Hummingbirds, but one year we had what we think was a Buff-Bellied Hummingbird hang around for months. 

October 2007
October 2007

If you don't have hummingbirds in your backyard, visit the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory's Hummingbird Xtravaganza Open House.  You can learn about hummingbirds, watch banding operations, walk the nature trails and more.  Note to plant geeks: the nature trails provide a great opportunity to stroll through the late summer flora in a relatively peaceful fashion.  The Xtravaganza Open House is September 11 and September 18 from 8:00 am to noon.  Here's a map to their place in Lake Jackson.

Watch this short video to the very end to catch the bright red flash of this hummingbird's throat!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Black Petunias? Really?

I really like Ball Horticultural.  I had a wonderful time at the Gardens.  I think the world of their market research team, especially Bill Calkins, who heads up their Independent Garden Center program.  

But I have to say, I just can't get all excited about the black petunia.  Yes.  Black.  It's a new Ball exclusive and Simply Beautiful selection called "Black Velvet."  It has a little buddy called Phantom Petunia, that's black and cream striped.  

Better contrast.
Camera flash makes it appear purple.

Ball's picture of "Phantom"
 Maybe it's me.  Maybe I'm behind the times.  Maybe this is just the novelty annual we've all been waiting for.  But I don't think so.  It's different from a black-flowered specimen plant, like a black iris.  It's different from dark-leaved foliage plants that set off the color green so nicely.  This one just looked ragged to me.  The black flowers makes a basket appear to have holes in it.  I can't imagine what it would look like planted in a bed.

Perhaps I'm mistaken though.  What do you think?  Would you buy a black petunia?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Foliage Friday: Colorado Blue Spruce

No, we can't really grow it in our area (humid zone 9a).  But it's the first thing I notice whenever I travel to cooler,drier climes.  Isn't it pretty?

Colorado Blue Spruce: Picea pungens

This beautiful evergreen looks best when left to form a pyramidal shape, with branches all the way to the ground.  It's a slow grower, but if left to its own devices, it can grow more than 50 feet tall.  The blue-green color is appealing, and the young cones are almost a violet-purple color. 

Why doesn't it work in the Houston area?  It suffers in our summer heat, and is prone to diseases like canker and insect damage from mites.  It does better in North Texas.  Which is why, probably, I really want one!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Political Economics at the IGC Show?

The most thought-provoking topic so far has been the emphasis on "buy independent-buy local," Back-to-Main-Street initiatives that support the independent retailer.  Everyone knows how these small, local businesses have struggled to compete against big-box, mass market national chains.  Speakers Stacy Mitchell of the New Rules Project and Jeff Milchen of the American Independent Business Alliance each spoke at length about the power of buying local and some various ways to convince the customer to keep her money in the local community.

Some interesting facts:
  • When a big-box retailers moves in, the local community typically sees a net loss of 150 jobs, not a net gain. (Here's the research)
  • Because retail chains can often negotiate extremely favorable terms, local tax revenues can decline as smaller independents downsize or go under. (Here's the research)
  • Municipal costs can be higher too, when police, fire protection and infrastructure costs are added to the mix. (Here's the research)
  • Big-box retailers typically don't foster the growth of a middle-class economy the way independent sole proprietorships do -- their wage structure is more polarized, with large low-wage labor pool and a smaller, often remote executive workforce. (Here's the research)
  • Retail chains don't spend nearly as much money with other local businesses.  They exploit their size to leverage relationships with national media companies, financial institutions, vendors and partners. (Here's the research)
  • Finally, retail chains tend to shift their profit back to headquarters, rather than leaving it in the hands of local owners.
Where's the consumer in all this?  Let's put aside for a moment the fact that the many average Americans now own stock in these national and multi-national chains.  I'm not sure what to say right now about the middle-class independent business owner who invests his profit in the S&P500.

But here's another way to interpret the statistics above: Big-box retailers, by lowering labor costs, negotiating better tax terms, shifting costs onto municipalities and leveraging their national supplier relationships are removing cost from the product, lowering prices for the consumer, increasing sales and creating shareholder value (as compared to the typical independent business owner). 

There's the trade-off.  For the buy-local movement to truly make a difference, people must come to view their own self-interest as strongly linked to the health of the community.  They must begin to think as citizens, not consumers, when they engage in a retail transaction.  The equation must be explicit:
  • I will pay more for this product at an independent retailers because my town's unemployment problem is my problem.
  • I will pay more for this product because the tax revenues generated by this local business keep the library open.
  • I will pay more for this product because I'd rather have a lot of middle-income people than a few extremely rich people and lots of low-income people.  Even if it means I stay a middle-income person.
  • If I can't pay more for this product, I will accept a lower standard of living by doing without it until I can pay more for it.
I'm not quite ready to bet the farm that my friends and neighbors will follow through.  I've drunk the Kool-Aid -- it just hasn't kicked in yet.
Here's more information about the New Rules Project, the American Independent Business Alliance and an interesting "brick and mortar" local business campaign called the 3/50 Project.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Notes From The Garden Center Tour

Yesterday, in conjunction with the Independent Garden Center Show in Chicago, I attended a garden center tour.  It was quite a long day, but the nurseries and shops we visited were full of hospitality.  We began the morning at Hawthorn Gardens, followed by Atrium Garden Center and Pasquesi Home and Garden.  All three were wonderful places to visit.  The staff really went the extra mile to welcome 400 guests.  We enjoyed a box lunch on the bus, headed toward our afternoon destinations: Tom's Farm Market & Greenhouses and Countryside Flowershop, Nursery and Garden Center.  There was a wonderful feeling of fall in the air -- and the smell of roasted corn!

But my favorite stop of the day was our final destination: The Gardens at Ball.  These beautiful display gardens are located at the headquarters of Ball Horticultural and serve as an inspiration to growers, retailers and gardeners everywhere.  Here are just a few of the many photographs I took there today:

Coleus in hot fall colors.
What a view!
More coleus.
Pockets of color in a perfect lawn.
Rudbeckia 'Cappuccino'
A shady vista.
Zinnia 'Zahara Double Fire'

What a wonderful way to welcome the fall season!

Monday, August 16, 2010

At the IGC Show in Chicago

I'm so excited to be back in Chicago for the 2010 Independent Garden Center Show, held every year at the Navy Pier.  Almost 7,000 people are registered to attend as I write this, and more will probably sign up at the door.  It's a great way to benchmark other garden centers, see new products, learn new techniques and get excited about the coming year.

Today I'm attending the Chicagoland Garden Center tour, stopping at six different garden centers in the area.  We'll also be treated to a special lab at Tom's Farm Market and Greenhouses, focusing on the latest in horticultural trends - food.  We'll finish the day at the Gardens at Ball.

Tomorrow, notes and pictures from today's tour.  I'll be looking for some of the many ways independents set themselves apart from big box retailers and how they integrate themselves into their own, specific communities.  Until then!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bloom Day, August 15, 2010

Happy Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, and thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting.  Today, gardeners all over talk about flowers blooming at home.  Hop on over there later and check out her lovely garden, and the links to gardens everywhere.

Here in hot, humid Sugar Land (outside of Houston, TX, towards Richmond), it's hard to even go outside.  I think this is the most difficult time to be a gardener around here.  Fall is definitely on the horizon, but even the most faithful of us can't see it yet.

Sweet Autumn Clematis
Gulf Fritillary
Nature seems to respond with vines.  Flowering vines are a sight right now, from dainty little Sweet Autumn Clematis, which I talked about earlier in the week, to dramatic blue passionflowers.  I wish I could take a good picture of the passionflower vine when it is alive with Gulf Fritillary butterflies.  It's almost eerie to see that many little creatures flittering around.

Purple flowers now, purple beans later.
Pretty heart-shaped foliage, too.
Oneof my favorite vines this time of year is Purple Hyacinth Bean, which has many different botanical names.  I'm going to go with Dolichos lablab.  This lovely vine not only produces pretty purple flowers, but brightly colored seedpods as well.  I understand that every part of this vine is edible, except for the beans, which must be boiled first.  It's too hot to boil anything, so I just like to look at it.  Although it's an annual, it must reseed easily, because I've noticed it growing in the same place, year after year.

Pink Coral Vine

My coral vine got off to a slow start, but it's coming along.  The dark pink always seems a little bit more assertive than the white -- I don't have blooms on the white one yet.

You can see where I'm trying to prop this would-be vine up!

Not really a vine, but it ought to be.  I so wanted this dark blue Thunbergia battiscombei to climb but it won't.  It just lays over on the ground, pretending to be a vine.  Oh well!

I had hoped by this GBBD to have flowers on the 'Mauve Dancing Ladies' ginger, or Globba winitii, but no luck.  Maybe in September!

Happy Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day and don't forget to visit Carol's site for more flowers.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Did You Garden As A Child?

Not me!  I don't recall really even using that word as a verb.  Come to think of it, we said "garden" only when we meant "vegetable garden," unless it was to refer to someplace altogether fancier, like Bellingrath or Bayou Bend.  No, what we did was yard work.  I am delighted to finally be old enough to say this: Back then, it was much harder!  Well, it was.  Those were the days when everyone double-dug flowerbeds.  That right there separates the wheat from the chaff.  And everyone mowed their own grass, except for my grandfather Chief.  He was the only person I knew that had a "yard man."  We had our own little crew.

The yard team, not including the poodle.

As the oldest of four kids, I was recruited early on and introduced to the mysteries of yard work.  And we all know, there's a right way and a wrong way to do everything.  The right way to gather the lawn clippings at my house involved emptying the grass catcher out onto the driveway and spreading it thinly.  Then, only after the grass was dried to a fine, threadlike form, was it safe to bag it up.  To sweep, it was imperative to employ a back-and-forth path across the driveway, like a typewriter (we used those, too).  Quite improper to sweep in long avenues down the driveway.  The Chief Engineer around here will tell you that mowing at his house had to be done with the grass catcher removed, and the grass spraying toward the center of the yard.  This required mowing in a continual counterclockwise circle.  To mow clockwise simply wasn't done.

Front yard.  Check out that sharp edging work!
And we didn't have all the fine technical tools we have now, either.  I very clearly remember crawling around the trees on my hands and knees, clipping the grass back with hand clippers.  String trimmers weren't invented until later.  And as for blowers, we might not have used them if they had been around.  I don't believe anyone in my extended family has one today, as a matter of fact.  I wonder why that is?

I still line beds with liriope.
As I got older, I was trained in the use of the edger, a fine old yellow McClane.  I was a big fan of that machine.  Years later, when I got my first house, I bought one of my own.  It took me a long time to realize that I had laid the foundation for gardening over the course of many hot Saturdays in the yard. 

You couldn't have convinced me of it back then, but my parents gave me a great gift by insisting we all do yard work.  I was directed as a very young child to notice things in the garden.  I observed first-hand the work that goes into transforming the land.  I learned that details matter, and to take pride in my little plot.  I still wouldn't call it gardening, but I imagine it was more elevated than yard work.