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A-girdling we go, a-girdling we go, hey ho the chewy-o, a-girdling we go!
October 27, 2019. Attack of the Mini-Beavers
It's always exciting to find and identify a new animal life form in the garden – but some are more welcome than others. A few weeks ago, our huisache tree was brutally and mysteriously attacked by an unknown foe. As you can read in more detail on my huisache girdler page, I found that the culprits were Oncideres pustulata, long-horned beetles in the genus of twig girdlers. Soon after, Ben found two of the beetles in action, and captured one for a photo shoot. Alas, the huisache is now missing two of its larger upright limbs, but at least the damage is done by a native insect, one that has co-evolved with the huisache and is actually kind of cool to learn more about. Still, I wouldn't mind if my next insect find was a colorful butterfly!
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Raaarrr!!
October 20, 2019. The grizzly pomegranate
How's this for an early Halloween picture for you? Among the various fruit trees growing in our garden, the pomegranate is one of our favorites: it has grown quickly into a medium-sized tree, and has pretty and interesting-looking flowers in summer. We saw only one fruit last year, but this year it set a good many more, so we were excited about the impending harvest. Alas, it turns out our climate isn't necessarily ideal for pomegranates, especially the harsh summer sun that can damage the growing fruits. We may try the special protective measures recommended by some (like collars to shade the fruits) next year, but this year the majority of our fruit didn't develop right (although we got some tasty seeds from some). Some of the fruit displayed their dislike of their situation by splitting open by early autumn, and inviting in the local wildlife. In this picture, I think the majority of the critters are immature milkweed assassin bugs (I should consider that as a Halloween outfit sometime!); the larger one may be some leaf-footed bug. Add some mold and toothy protrusions and you have the perfect horror movie prop!
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October 11, 2019. Southern cooking
Three years after moving to Texas, our family has yet to adopt many of the southern habits, stylings, and tastes. But one thing we've taken to with enthusiasm is okra. I remember growing the odd vegetable once in Pennsylvania, as as experiment, but we never ate any of it – it was not familiar to us, and seemed slimy and not so appetizing. Fast-forward a few years, and we found ourselves subscribing to a weekly CSA box of organic produce here in Texas – and in the summer, that meant a continuous supply of those odd immature seedpods of the African mallow relative. So we did some research, and found that they were quite tasty when oven-roasted with some olive oil and salt, so that became our standard way of preparing them for a while. The next summer, we had our own little farm plot, and decided to grow our own supply. Wow, do those plants grow in the Texas heat! They quickly zoomed up to 8 feet or taller, and provided a constant supply of pods, just about the only produce that kept on coming through the summer months. So we needed some more outlets to use our bounty, and decided to try our hand at gumbo. We first tried an internet recipe that came out tasty enough, but over the course of a few more attempts we settled on our own variation, one that omits the heavy dose of roux, doubles the okra content, and uses a flexible combination of bacon, chicken, and andouille sausage for flavor and protein, along with red and green peppers, diced tomatoes, garlic, and some spicy flavorings. Served over rice, it is a perfect summer meal. I've gotten much better at cutting up the okra with the plentiful supply that comes our way: even after I throw out half of the okra with every harvest, the pods that have grown too large even after just three or four days of development. In the photo here, I'm manning the okra-slinging operation, while Amy has temporarily stepped away from the andouille-frying to take the pic.
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silver dollar blown askew
September 27, 2019. Drought and Flood
Yeah, it's been a while. Gardening has been slowish the past few months, with much the same progression of development and flowering as previous years in this garden. Pleasant enough, but doesn't much inspire the urge to run out and grab a camera to capture an exciting new find. That's true even though I finally purchased a new DSLR to replace my old Olympus which had started to display some digital tics. Earlier in summer, I did spend a week digging a new border along the north foundation of the house, which means there's only a small strip where lawn meets foundation left, along the south side. But that's also where we're trying to teach our new muttpuppy, Hippie (our dear Maddy passed away last winter), to use the bathroom, so it may forever remain unimproved. Meanwhile, the new border will be a good place to grow plants that appreciate more shade and consistent moisture; thus far, I've planted mostly an assortment of gingers (selections from a big-box store as well as mail order), but there's room for plenty more.
Predictably, the weather turned hot and dry in July and August, with very little rain for more than a month. Unlike the last couple of years, I decided to adopt a strategy of letting my plants fend for themselves, with whatever water the lawn sprinkler system would deliver to their feet but little or no supplemental watering. Ideally, I'd have a landscape that can survive the weather that Houston is inevitably going to deliver in summer, but perhaps my tough love all at once was a little ill-advised, because now I find myself looking at a backyard with big holes where there were lush plantings just a few months ago. The biggest empty spot is where the Salvia involucrata lived. I loved that plant, but it was always the thirstiest customer around, wilting long before any others did, so I think it's for the better that its space will be filled with a more well-adapted alternative (to be determined). Other losses include lamb's ear (also more or less expected), and more surprisingly, two of my four species of cuphea: my batface and Vermillionaire varieties bit the dust, even as Mexican heather and blue waxweed continued to thrive. In any case, I'm sure those holes will be filled in due time. I foresee some nursery trips in the near future to facilitate that!
By now, though, the dry spell is only a memory – we had a tropical storm blow through a week ago and dump a boatload of water, with several more heavy rainshowers since then, so the garden is once again fully hydrated and ready to go. That storm did bring high winds as well, which affected some of the lankier denizens of the garden: the towering okra plants in the vegetable plot are all askew (which is OK), but one of the silver dollar trees, which had shot up remarkably fast this year, was likewise blown halfway over. Its sister stayed upright, so I lopped off the diagonal one after taking the picture here; Amy has grand designs on a wonderful silver-dollar wreath made from its spoils.
It's still hot, but friendlier weather is on its way. I think I'll be posting a bit more frequently...
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June 02, 2019. Where do we want the almond fragrance?
Most of my garden modifications, it seems, arise from visits to nurseries, where I pick up a tempting specimen (or two, or three), only to realize when I'm back home that there's nowhere to put it. Which, of course, prompts the creation of some new section of the garden. Last week's acquisitions were actually modest, as was my gardening response: Amy and I made our second visit to Peckerwood Garden, a marvellous collector's garden a little further inland, and again admired the many unusual species on display (our first visit was in late fall, so we got a different slice of bloom this time). Since we were last there, they had expanded their nursery, and had quite a few tempting selections. However, I restrained myself, and only walked away with half a dozen plants or so – most of which were smaller and not too hard to find places for. But the one that both Amy and I were most excited about posed a bit more of a problem: on both our visits we had been enchanted by a mature specimen of almond verbena, signaling its presence with its sweet and pleasant fragrance on both occasions. This time, they had small plants for sale, so we jumped on it. However, this shrub can grow to a significant size with time, so none of our existing borders could accommodate its mature size. Not wishing to exile such a fragrant plant to a far corner of the yard, I decided it should be planted in the main part of the backyard, close to the pond, where we could enjoy it best. And thus, another inroad on the lawn had to be created. In this case, it took the form of a sizeable circle extricated from the bermudagrass, with soil amended and somewhat raised to provide the drainage the shrub desires. For now, it's just a little sprig of green that seems out of place, but as it grows, I expect to enlarge its circle, until eventually the almond verbena will be part of the border that's now behind it, included in the grander assembly of waterfall pond, rock/succulent garden, and shrub border in its vicinity. I hope it grows fast!

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April 14, 2019. Hail Houston
Texas throws some crazy weather at us! We had previously marked hurricanes, freak freezing rain events, extreme heat, torrential thunderstorms, and even snow on our checklist – but yesterday brought something new again: hail! Big hail! Thunderstorms had been in the forecast, but we weren't prepared for the few minutes of icy onslaught that hit us in the afternoon. All around us the racket was incredible: when inch-diameter iceballs hit hard surfaces, it's loud! In the end, we were happy to find that our windshields were intact, and the house hadn't sustained obvious damage. In the aftermath, the yard was strewn with curiously layered ice-spheroids, and the temperature had dropped instantaneously from hot to cool. Amazingly, the garden denizens took it in stride – a few of the larger flowers were tattered, a few branches ripped by the fierce winds that accompanied the thunderstorm, but for the most part the borders didn't show much sign of having been mercilessly pelted just minutes before. So we'll add this to our checklist, always wondering what Houston will surprise at with next...
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April 13, 2019. From seed to bulb flowers
Houston's garden season just kind of creeps along – the garden is never quite dormant, and even flowering doesn't come to a halt in mild winters. Gradually, through late winter and early spring, more and more plants come into bloom, so that by the time we're in the middle of spring, there's color everywhere. That certainly makes for a happy glance at the tapestry of color out the back windows, and pleasant backyard strolls most evenings. What doesn't happen nearly as often is that a new-to-me flower shows itself. What's more, with so many plants blooming nearby, I sometimes don't even notice when last year's seedlings finally show their (usually low-to-the-ground) flowers until a few days after they appear. But it's always a special kind of thrill, and somehow even more so for bulb flowers. A few weeks ago, I was treated to the first flowers of Freesia laxa 'Joan Evans', so much daintier than those of the hybrid freesias that I'd grown before. And yesterday, it was time for the first color to emerge from Project Rainlily 2018: since I can no longer grow most alpines, but I remain a member of the North American Rock Garden Society, I've had to change my seed selections from their wonderful annual exchange. Now, most of my picks are tender bulbs and succulents, many in genera that were out of my reach in Pennsylvania. And among those, I selected a nice variety of rain lilies (Zephyranthes and Habranthus species), enough of them to feel that raising them was a special project last year (although I've modestly extended the project into 2019). So here we are, with the first of those rain lilies bursting into bloom – Mexican native Zephyranthes dichromantha started perhaps not exuberantly, but with great promise: most of the plants that survived the year are sporting at least one pale yellow flower with red swooshes. I look forward to several others strutting their stuff this year, and to this year's tentative plants becoming more robust and floriferous in years to come.

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The golden explosion
March 16, 2019. Weesatch puffballs
Back in Pennsylvania, this would be late winter, and I'd be eagerly reporting on all the re-emerging perennials, and the very first flowers (oh, those hellebores!). In Houston? There's much less anticipation: there have been flowers all through winter, and it seems like a steady progression of more plants coming into bloom week by week, without much of a splash. I miss those sudden bursts of activity, the acute change of season. But every once in a while, even here there's a big enough change to stop me in my tracks. The exuberant blossoms of the azaleas, for one. But this year, I can add the onslaught of the weesatch puffballs. Among the various native trees we purchased at Buchanan's nursery in late autumn of 2017, our huisache was the prickliest (although the Hercules club comes a close second). It also proved to be the fastest-growing of the bunch, more than doubling its size in a season of growth. And while we got to see just a handful of its yellow puff flowers in 2018, this year we're witnessing a golden explosion! Folks around here don't like these trees too much, mostly because even as saplings their spines are ferocious – but I'm glad we can count one of them among our backyard trees. Even if it means regularly pruning back branches to prevent impaling myself when I mow the lawn!
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Desert cassia
March 02, 2019. Spring is here
The first weekend in March – time to return seriously to the garden, in which the weeds have proliferated through the mild winter. I decided to give the lawnmower a spin, mostly to lop off all of the weeds that had started to create a prairie look – including the offspring of last year's massive sunflower. But the real work is in the borders, where the honeymoon period after starting a new garden is definitely over: myriads of weeds have aggressively colonized, ignoring mulch and proving surprisingly hard to control. I see a full-fledged battle coming on! Of course, I wouldn't be in the garden if there weren't pretty things to admire – like the clear-yellow flowers of our desert cassia, which I planted late autumn and luckily survived the decidedly undesertlike conditions of our wet winter. Other plants newly in bloom include Aloe 'Blue Elf', Leucojum aestivum 'Gravitye Giant', and colorful freesias. Add to that plants that never stopped blooming, like Salvia involucrata that kept on producing its popping-magenta flowers all through winter, and there's plenty of reward for weeding duties. Now that the major garden areas have been mostly defined through the border-building projects of the past two years, I'm looking forward to creating some cohesion in the tapestry of plants, while finding space for last year's and this year's seedlings.
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Copper Canyon daisy in full bloom
January 01, 2019. A new year
2019 has arrived! Here in Houston, the weather has been mild through the holidays. No lack of rain (you can stop now, please), but also no new freezes since one that arrived early on, way back in November. So everything that survived that first cold snap is still alive and often thriving. So much so that I decided to put together a page showing off what's in bloom around our garden this New Year's day. All in all, not bad for a time of year when Pennsylvania's gardens offer little besides some holly berries, sweeping evergreens, and pretty bark – for those willing to brave the elements. I'm not sure it's enough of a trade-off for the unrelenting heat and humidity we endure down here in the summers, but I'll gladly partake of the good times while they last. I look forward to the spring bulbs, which should be bursting forth soon, and foresee a few more "enhancement projects" on the horizon this year. Wishing you a happy New Year from our garden to yours!

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Last modified: October 27, 2019
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