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.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Poem, Hoping For Spring

Bee in Wallflower

Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip's bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat's back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

From The Tempest by William Shakespeare, 1610

These lines are spoken by Ariel after Prospero frees him from his debt.  What a life that would be, living under the blossoms...

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Iceland Poppies

Did you forget to plant your Iceland Poppies last fall?  It's not too late!  Although these dainty beauties dislike our warm weather, they should be able to hold on through the end of April or so.

Papaver nudicaule 'Champagne Bubbles'
I love this variety -- "Champagne Bubbles."  The flowers come in an array of warm, sunny colors like red, yellow and orange.  I think the petals look like the finest silk crepe, and yet they are fairly tough.  Iceland Poppies seem to withstand our version of cold weather just fine! 

Although this poppy is often sold as a perennial, it should be regarded as an annual here.  It's just too hard to guarantee its survival through our summers.  Take a chance on those seed pods, though!  It's possible you'll have seedlings in the fall, who will develop nice strong root systems to carry them through next spring.  Plant in a sunny, well-drained spot and enjoy until the hot weather sets in.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Enormity of Water

I haven't written in a while, not because I've been indoors, but because I didn't think what I was doing was really related to gardening.  But it is, I think, in the most elemental sense.

I've been struggling with water.  The Papershell property (my garden center) is located on a very flat piece of ground near the floodplain of a creek.  All the land around here is very low and level -- it's basically all  Brazos River bottomlands.  It's very hard to drain land like that, unless money is no object.  Water tends to just sit on flat ground, and the clay is so impervious that it takes a long, long time for water to percolate down into the soil. 

Now factor in the rain patterns we get on the Gulf Coast.  Monsoon-style rain, followed by drought, followed by floods.  When it's dry, you can't really get a sense of the way the water will move across the land.  When it's wet, it's all submerged.  But from time to time, a window of opportunity opens up.  Now is one of those times.

Studying water in the bottomlands is a matter of inches.  You need to get right up close, muddy and wet.  The slightest rise or contour can divert water away from a catchbasin, or toward a structure.  To really see where the water wants to go, it's necessary to go out there when it's raining, which I hate to do.  To change where the water wants to go, it's necessary to dig.  And not just in clay.  In heavy, wet, sticky, clay.  That terrible sucking sound the mud makes as it yanks your boots off your feet? My nightmare.

Rubber Cowgirl Boots, the saving grace.
So yeah.  I've been out there.  Not gardening, exactly.  More like hand-to-hand combat.  Who's winning?  The elements, that's who.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Foliage Friday: Indian Hawthorn 'Umbellata Minor'

This Indian Hawthorn, Raphiolepis umbellata, is similar the traditional (and more common) Indian Hawthorn, Raphiolepis indica.  Both are native to Asia, and both make a nice, low-growing hedge.  But I prefer the umbellata minor, because it seems to have a cheerier disposition. The standard Indian Hawthorn always seems crouched over to me, a little too hunchbacked.

Raphiolepis umbellata 'Minor'
The umbellata has a more upright form and slightly smaller leaves and to me, the leaves are often a darker green.   It also seems to resist fungal disease better than the indica.  Umbellata slowly reaches a height of 4-5 feet, but it's nicer when trimmed to 3-4 feet, preventing it from splaying open.  When it blooms in the spring, the flowers are small, white and fragrant.  New growth is reddish, and in spring will sometimes resemble a miniature version of Red-Tip Photinia.

This dwarf hawthorn does best in sunny or mostly sunny areas, with good drainage.  It makes a nice low, evergreen hedge or small group and has just a little bit different approach to life!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Corsican Violas and the Power of the Imagination

The Corsican Viola, or Viola corsica, is a sweet little Mediterranean relative of the pansy.  Flowers of indigo blue, a neat mounding habit and the ability to tolerate partial shade all serve to recommend this flower, but that's not why I like it.  Corsican Viola is also rumored to be a bit more heat-tolerant than our regular pansies and violas, but that's not why I like it.  Some folks even claim that Corsican Viola is perennial, and can reseed, but that's not why I like it.

Corsican viola, or Viola corsica
I love this flower because it's what I imagine the original viola was, before the plant breeders went crazy for wild color combinations and frilly petals. I like to think what it would have been like to come upon a clump of these charming purple flowers, while strolling behind a flock of fluffy white sheep as they meandered through the Mediterranean hills.

Somehow, more innocent than regular pansies and violas.
I know, I know.  The modern Corsican viola probably bears little resemblance to its original ancestor.  But still, there's something quaint and vaguely antique about it, after all.

Plant Corsican violas in full or partial sun.  Make sure the soil is well-draining and feed regularly.  Like its cousin the pansy, this viola is a fairly heavy feeder.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Limits of Local

Are you a locavore?  Do you garden organically?  Have you got a vegetable garden?  Are you a grower of native plants?  Perhaps you have vegetarian leanings?  Me, too.  There are lots of us who fit that particular demographic and I got to thinking about what it would mean if everyone did.  After the utopian rush, I started to feel a little nervous.

Where's MY farm?
I live in the coastal plain of Southeast Texas, on the outskirts of Houston, which is now the fourth-largest city in the US.  In 2009, there were 5.9 million people in the Houston metro area.  Houston itself is large -- the metro area encompasses almost 9,000 square miles or 5.76 million acres.  Some of this land is arable, some is not.  The picture above is a circle centered on my neighborhood, with a 100-mile radius.  Part of the problem immediately springs to mind.  A good chunk of the area within the 100-mile radius circle is underwater.  Frankly, speaking as a gardener here, much of the rest of it is pretty dang soggy too.

So.  What does locavorism mean for urban centers?  For cities on the coast?   For cities that abut desert lands, or marshes?  If we were serious about eating locally grown food, what exactly would we eat here, in the Houston area?  Stay tuned...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Native Plants, Native Pests, Cultivated Weeds

I'm always thinking about plants and reading about plants.  Sometimes a theme emerges, and lately it's the division between native and exotic plants, between weeds and cultivated plants. 

Arundo donax.  Exotic invasive in the US.
Among a certain set of gardeners, native plants are widely thought to make better garden choices because they are bred for their own specific environment, and are often food and/or shelter for native wildlife.  Fair enough.  I pretty much agree with this idea, in general.  In theory.  I guess.  Sometimes I'm a little disheartened at my garden's prospects, should I go native.  I live in what was once a vast coastal prairie that has now all but vanished.  I'm not sure it's even possible now to recreate the native environment on a scale as small as my yard.  Plus I think I'm too short to live in a tallgrass prairie.

Pennisetum purpuream.  Exotic.  Invasive in Florida.
But that's not really what's on my mind.  Here's a question: if native plants are best suited to the local environment, and native wildlife has evolved to use them for food and shelter, haven't native pests also evolved to prey on them?  If we broaden our idea of wildlife to include plant pathogens and irritating insects, would we be happy to plant natives for them? 

Elephant Ears (Colocasia).  Invasive exotic.
It's true that sometimes a plant actually thrives in a region far removed from its origins.  Sometimes it thrives so much it becomes a nasty invasive.  I'm thinking of the destruction wrought on the aforementioned coastal prairie by the Chinese Tallow tree, an exotic species gone wild.  Though it is not native to this area, it is certainly well-adapted here.  And we all can think of native plants that are notoriously fussy and hard to grow in their own, original environment.  The Dogwood (Cornus florida) springs to mind.

More on this subject later.  Weeds.  Crops.  Ornamentals.  Politics and policy.  What a tangled mess!

Friday, January 7, 2011

On Hardware, Software and Little Green Leaves

It's been a rather trying week at the garden center and it all seemed to come to a head on Friday.  I won't bore you with all the details, but we've been struggling with our computer system software and our little John Deere tractor. 

Joanie, Dear.  Good girl.
The supplies we need to unload are heavy -- the average pallet of soil or mulch weighs over a ton.  You need quite a bit of weight in the back to counterbalance the load.  It turns out that even an 800 lb. mower isn't quite enough.  What's required? A truck driver, a sales representative and a willing, if nervous, employee perched on the mower like anxious birds.  What happened next?  Back to the tractor store for a counseling session, a $14 part and a pep talk.  Then on to the garden center to fill the back tires with water for additional ballast.

Boo.  Hiss.
The computerized cash register system we chose is imperfect, as they all are.  No matter what the issue seems to be, the answer (cheerfully provided by helpful phone operators in a land far, far away) is the same.  Upgrade your product for an additional pile of money, and then perhaps it will work as advertised.  This week, I made an executive decision to stop throwing good money after bad where the computers are concerned.  We'll make do without the bells and whistles for a little while longer.  Deep breath.

Happy pansies.
It wasn't until late in the evening, while I was watering a few dry flats of winter flowers, that I was able to see how beautiful the sky really was.  How sweet the leaves of Salvia clevelandii smell.  How grateful the little pansies were for a drink of water. 

I'm glad I was able to take a moment to reconnect with the outside world.  It makes all the difference to end the week like that, among the green things.  Time enough next week for the glitches, gotchas and gimmicks.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Beautiful Sedum Palmeri

I always think of dry, hot weather when I think of sedum, but this lovely sedum palmeri is enjoying a rainy winter day in Richmond, Texas.  Now, it was warm for winter -- almost 72°!

Sedum palmeri
This sedum is native to Mexico, and it does produce yellow, starry flowers, but I love the soft pink blush on the edges of the mature leaves.  It's most at home in a light, well-draining soil with afternoon shade in the summer.  In fact, it would probably be happy with afternoon shade all year long -- a perfect hanging basket or container plant.

It's not altogether hardy here in zone 9A.  If we get the Arctic blast that's forecast for mid-month, I'll bring them in or cover them, especially since these are little baby plants.  Other than that, it's a reliably carefree plant!

Note:  this plant is also known as Sedum palmeri emarginatum.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year, New Directions

High anxiety and great excitement, in equal parts.  That's what the new year holds for me, as I embark on my next big adventure.

My garden center, Papershell: A Garden Gallery, opens February 1, a scant 30 days from today!  I'm thrilled to be back in the business and excited to be working on something just a little bit different.  Let me tell you a little bit about Papershell.

Native Texas pecan

Why Papershell?  One of our most beautiful native trees is the pecan, and when the shells are thin and easy to crack, they're called papershells.  Pecan trees are a little wild, with a rangy habit.  They prefer the deep soils of the river bottom and when planted in the right spot can reach upwards of 100 feet tall.  The pecan is the Texas state tree, and the nuts are highly prized for holiday baking.

Solitary, by Jo Edwards
Why Garden Gallery?  We have an art gallery instead of a traditional garden center gift shop.  There are so many wonderful artists and craftspeople working in our own community!  It seemed silly to order mass-produced goods, shipped in from another country.  Our idea for the gallery: "Original art for original people."  Meet Jo Edwards, one of our featured artists this spring, at an Artist Chat on Saturday, February 5 at 4:00 pm.

But we're all about the plants, too.  We stock a nice mix of flowering plants, shrubs and trees along with seasonal herbs and vegetables.  We're so excited to partner with Urban Harvest in offering a 7-class gardening series this spring.  And we're proud to employ Texas Certified Nursery Professionals and Master Gardeners who are passionate about plants.  Real plants.  Real people.

So if you're in the area, stop by and say hello.  Have a cup of coffee.  Pick herbs in our community garden.  Wander beneath the trees for a while.  Get out in the country!  We're between Richmond and Rosenberg, just 2 miles off the freeway.  Here's a map -- we're looking forward to meeting you.

P.S. Find us on Facebook, too!