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Garden journal - all of 2020


There's no missing these big bold red flowers
March 26, 2020. Return of the Amaryllis
Who doesn't like the big bold amaryllis (Hippeastrum, for the botanists) flowers on plants sold for indoor enjoyment? I sure do, and so does Amy; I've taken to buying a potted one around the winter holidays to enjoy in the post-Christmas jumble around the house. Back in Pennsylvania, it was pretty much a lost cause to try to keep them alive after they'd served their indoor purpose, but here in Texas I had hope of keeping it going outdoors. So last year I tried, and planted the large bulb in one of our garden borders after it finished blooming. It just sat there for the rest of the season, and looked positively bedraggled by the time January rolled around – so I gave up on the concept, and tossed this year's bulb in the compost. Too soon, too soon! Within weeks, the outdoor one spruced up, and by mid-March, it was blooming – at least as nicely as it had indoors the previous year. So now I know. If we're in this home for a few more years, we'll have amaryllis all around!
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March 29, 2020. Project sunny seedlings
Nearly six months passed between 2019's last post and 2020's first. What happened? Not enough, apparently, to inspire me to write about it. What did happen is that our new puppy, Hippie, turned out to be a lean mean digging machine, and made holes both in the lawn and in the border areas, upturning carefully planted perennials and just generally making a mess. It was disheartening, and for a while I wasn't much motivated to get out and garden. Then the Houston "winter" arrived – that season when there's always something still blooming, but it's at a low level, nothing much happening, same stuff as last year. So the weeds proliferated as I turned my attention to other endeavors. But finally, two things came together to rekindle my gardening spirit. The first was the arrival of spring, with its much greater exuberance of growth and flower – even in this subtropical climate. The garden, which was never really asleep, suddenly seemed to wake up completely and confront me with its presence. The second was the arrival of the coronavirus, and its restrictions on ordinary activities away from the house. The day that the announcement of our county's stay-at-home guidance was imminent (which happened to be the first day I worked from home), I made a quick trip to the local garden materials supply place, for bagged compost and some edging stones, in preparation for a project I'd been eyeing for some time.
Although I've not resumed my seed-starting activities on the same scale here in Houston as I used to undertake in Pennsylvania, I still start plenty of seeds every year, mostly from the annual NARGS seed exchange. I had created a nice little border along our south fence to house the seedlings over the past two years, but found my success rate in keeping them alive to be even lower than it was in Allentown. That's partly due to the hot summer conditions here in Houston – many plants, even those listed for warm zones, just don't fare well in the unrelenting heat and humidity. But I've come to suspect that for many others that haven't thrived, the problem is the opposite: my seedling area is shaded most of the day by the fence that runs along its back. This was on purpose: I wanted to provide some respite from the summer sun to my poor seedlings. But for quite a few of the plant groups I've been trying to grow recently (the rain lilies, agaves, and various other drought-tolerant and/or succulent plants), the lack of sufficient sunshine in their formative seasons probably retarded their growth, making them vulnerable to wetter conditions in winter (and dog paws, too!). So my mission was to create some sunny seedling areas. For that, I had to look on the other side of the garden – along the north fence, where sunlight is plentiful. My faithful readers will remember that I had created a narrow border along that entire fence a little over a year ago. Some plants had since found their way into that border, and in any case it wasn't wide enough to accommodate many new seedlings. So an extension was in order. Over quite a length of the existing border, I added anywhere from 1 to 4 feet of extra width, using my usual double-digging, sod-burying method, with extra compost mix and sand mixed in to build up the border height.The picture here shows only part of the extension, the one with well-defined seedling areas (those of you with sharp eyes may even see the first seedlings are already in). Now I'll have an opportunity to compare seedling survival rates for the two areas. This new one is far removed from the closest spigot, so it will have to contend with some dry conditions from time to time. We'll see how the plants fare – the agaves and sotols will be fine, some of the others may struggle. And that's fine – gardening is a game of trial and error, for anyone who doesn't always play it safe.
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April 04, 2020. The zoom-zoom tree
I think if I looked real carefully, I could see my citrus-scented eucalyptus tree grow. However, to do so I'd need a rather long ladder, as our tree has zoomed up by leaps and bounds since we planted it a couple years ago, and is now by far the tallest tree in our garden – easily outgrowing its much older live oak neighbor, and even the also-fast-growing huisache tree on the other end of our backyard. Amy thinks it's the tallest tree in our young neighborhood, and it may very well be (although there are some ugly palm trees contending for that title). It was just a mere whisp when we planted it, and I had no idea of its rapid growth, so just stuck it in a garden border. At this point, I'm curious to see where it will top out. It's certainly been an interesting tree to watch and witness, with its rough-textured, lemon-scented leaves, its geometric progression of twigs emerging from the trunk and dying off in favor of higher-up growth, and recently, its exfoliating bark. Hopefully, our HOA won't deem it an eyesore and demand its removal – our garden's interior location in the back of a cul-de-sac may protect it from that fate. However, if that does happen, we may engage in some paper-making – I understand that eucalypt wood is popular for pulping in tropical countries, because of the trees' rapid growth. Yeah, you can say that again.
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Victoria smothering Duranta in a loving embrace
April 09, 2020. Overwhelming passion
It's the season of vines. Ever since starting our backyard garden a few years ago, my goal has been to hide as much of the back fence as possible, and I'm starting to succeed quite nicely. Some of the hiding is done by trees and large shrubs, but vigorous vines do an important part of the work – including a massive climbing aster, early-flowering Virginia jasmine, big-flowered butterfly vine, towering cape honeysuckle, vigorous Mexican flame vine, and even a grape. Many of those are blooming right now. I'll dedicate a separate page to the fence-hiding project some day. Among all those vines, the longest-flowering by far is our 'Victoria' passionflower. While it's supposed to produce edible fruits, it has failed to do so in our garden. But that's not for lack of trying – it is constantly covered in interesting dusky-purple buds, with always a few splashy flowers open. It sends its vines everywhere, covering its neighbors with its big three-fingered leaves, and eventually not only shading them out but also weighing them down. So I remove large parts of it routinely, which doesn't phase Victoria at all. Among the neighbors smothered by her love, our lovely Duranta erecta bears the biggest brunt, since Ms. Passionflower grows right at her base. But doesn't it make for a lovely combination? I'll rescue the duranta soon – since I need her too: she's yet another part of the fence-hiding squad!
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April 28, 2020. Anole love
Over the course of the four years we've lived in our new Texas home, the anole lizard population has exploded. The first year, we were delighted with the occasional sightings of our green garden friends. By now, it's hard to walk through the backyard without spotting a few – and we're still happy to see them. Even though our puppy has recently taken to hunting them down and attempting to eat them, her actions have hardly dented the lizard population. And they're intent on expanding their numbers: I spotted this quiet couple in our back fence border one recent afternoon. The female will soon lay a single egg, buried in moist soil, which should hatch in five to seven weeks. By that time, mama anole will have several more offspring cooking: she ovulates every two weeks or so. With anoles' life span between two and eight years, you can see how a healthy population can ensue, even with some predation by birds and muttpuppies. They eat all kinds of insects, helping to keep the ecosystem in balance – but mostly, they are just fun to watch scurrying about.

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May 23, 2020. Lawn incursion lobe
I'm so predictable! Last weekend, I decided to pay a semi-annual visit to one of the more interesting nurseries around here, where I always find new things to grow. Their price tags aren't "discount", that's why I only venture out a couple times a year! So of course I returned with a good number of new green friends. And, as tends to happen, my eyes are bigger than my garden space, so I didn't necessarily have room for all those newcomers. That's not a problem for most small to medium-sized perennials, for which I can always claim some space from unruly or slightly bare parts of the borders. But when the newcomer is a small tree, things get trickier. This time, the problematic purchase was a hardy tapioca tree, which wants to eventually grow to 15 ft tall (and equally wide), even though it is just 5 ft at the moment. After surveying the garden and finding no obvious places in existing borders where it would fit in the long run, I did what I've done many times before: I decided a new border area needed to be created to provide a home for Ms. Tapioca. The selected spot is at the back left corner of our house, where a couple of downspouts converge on a narrow border where I tend to stick plants that like a bit more shade. The tapioca doesn't want shade, but that's not a problem – it needed to be planted much farther away from the house than the border's previous width, where the house's shade won't reach most of the day. That meant extracting a sizable extra lobe from the lawn. Those operations always mean a good number of hours of hard digging work (you might not think so, looking at the photo, but trust me, I put in plenty of sweat equity), but by this afternoon, the border extension was complete, and Ms. Tapioca is its first inhabitant. Hmm, a lot of empty space around that tree – should I make another nursery visit?
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May 31, 2020. The invisible fence
As I've stated a few times in these pages, my primary goal in developing the backyard garden was to eliminate the bare-fence view out the back windows and from our back patio. So my earliest gardening efforts focused on building a border spanning the length of the back fence. Since our cul-de-sac lot is wedge-shaped, that makes for the single longest stretch of garden you can create around our house. Serious work started in spring of 2017, spurred by the construction of our waterfall pond; three years later, I feel I have mostly achieved my objective: the view from the patio reveals barely any of the cedar slats that used to dominate the picture. Of course a stroll down the border will still show plenty of fence in between the larger plantings, but the overall look is that of a shrub border. Now, if anything, I have to contend with the enthusiastic growth habits of many of its inhabitants, but I think I can deal with that. In the picture here, the tallest trees (mid-left and right corner) are on the other side of the fence: the builder-planted live oaks that live in all the neighbors' backyards (our own is out of view, further to the right). All the other plants are in front of the fence; counting the bigger blobs starting from the left, there's a couple of fig trees in the left corner, followed by a pomegranate, an olive, a Key lime, a huge Cape honeysuckle that is intent on conquering our yard and the neighbors' too, purple-flowering duranta, yellow-flowering thryallis, and one of our two satsuma oranges. The border continues along the back of the pond, where several vines (climbing aster, Carolina jasmine, Mexican butterly vine, and Mexican flame vine) combine with the other satsuma, a silver dollar tree, an Arizona cypress, and aforementioned live oak to complete the picture. The only part where significant fence shows is above our rock garden, where plantings are naturally lower, but even there some horizontally extending jasmine vines soften the picture. In all, I'm pleased with the progress over the past couple of years. On to the next challenge!

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Zephyranthes 'Labufarosa' produces a big flush of flowers
June 27, 2020. The Day of the Rain Lilies
Back in Pennsylvania, I used to focus my seed-starting campaign on alpine plants for the rock garden (which were mostly doomed to fail, but no matter – it was fun trying) and perennials for temperate climates. Since moving to Houston, I've had to adjust my palette of target plants, since most of the types I used to grow stand no chance in this subtropical climate. Among my new selections, two groups stand out: the agaves (along with their allies: hesperaloe, manfreda, yucca), and the rain lilies (habranthus and zephyranthes). I've tried numerous species of each, mostly through the NARGS seed exchanges of the past three years. The agaves that are still alive (many of them are finnicky, I've found) are mostly still small, and certainly many years from blooming. But a good number of the rain lilies have come into their own by now, the first ones showing their flowers last year, and coming back more strongly this year. This past week marked the end of a period of hot dry weather, as a series of thunderstorms swept through our area – and sure enough, the rain lily ladies responded by bursting into bloom – over the past couple of days, I counted five species/varieties. The prize for most floriferous display went to Zephyranthes 'Labufarosa', the only one I didn't grow from seed (it came from the nursery at Peckerwood Garden, and has been in our garden the longest). The flowers on Habranthus robustus are even larger, and our third-year plants rival 'Labufarosa' for sturdiness and flower production. Zephyranthes dichromantha has also been building strength for two years now, and our plants are in their third bloom cycle of the year, producing a nice display of smaller soft-yellow flowers that open from burgundy buds. Two others yellow ones are showing their blooms for the first time this year: the brassy-yellow Z. citrina and the copper-tinted H. tubispathus. That means that all the rain lilies whose flowers I've seen thus far in our garden were blooming almost simultaneously, with the exception of Z. katheriniae, whose red flowers I saw a week or two ago, and Z. macrosiphon, which showed off its perfectly-petaled pink flowers last week. Several others have yet to flower – some are more difficult and may require several attempts to grow from seed before I succeed, and others I just started from seed this year, so I may need to wait another year or two to see them strut their stuff. It's fun to collect plant types – through the years, I've tried my hand at Thalictrum, Amsonia, Eryngium, Geranium, Penstemon, and Scutellaria – and the rain lily clan is worthy of another mini-obsession. I hope to show off evidence of quite a few more in years to come!
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November 01, 2020. Spiky growth around the pond
Because it's been altogether too long since I last wrote here, just a quick post highlighting the grassy growth in and around our waterfall pond. The two purple-leaved plants look similar (a happy coincidence) even though they are not remotely related. The one at left is a true grass, Pennisetum 'Princess Caroline', and grows in regular garden soil behind the pond. It has been evergreen through our last two winters, providing a steady mass of foliage as a backdrop to the pond; I give it a good haircut to remove frost-damaged leaves in early spring, and then just let it do its thing. Its lookalike to the right is a red bog lily (Crinum species or cultivar) that grows in the filtration zone at the top of the waterfall. It was planted as a small specimen when the pond was first installed, and at first didn't seem like much of a match for several vigorous companions that quickly took over initially. But slow and steady wins the race, and by now the crinum is undeniably the queen of the bog, delighting us with striking white flowers a few times through the warm season, and its sturdy foliage year-round. It too receives a good early-spring trimming.
In the foreground, the green forest of golden spears and bushy horsetail (which grow in the slow-moving stream at the base of the waterfall) is nicely offset by Princess Caroline behind it. Ignore the dead stick in the middle: it used to be a willow that volunteered in the boggy area in front of the stream. We allowed it to grow for a few years, cutting it back strongly whenever it got too big, but it suddenly gave up the ghost a few months ago. That's probably just as well, since it was never destined to become the tree it so longed to be.
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The builder is nowhere in sight, but her work is admirable
November 20, 2020. Spider's delight
This morning, shortly after seven o'clock, after Amy left home to tend to her fifth-grade class, I got an excited phone call. My dear wife exhorted me to go downstairs and outside immediately, and witness the miracle created by a little spider, in the tree adjacent to her car. And sure enough, when I dutifully reported outside, there it was – a dew-jeweled small but near-perfect spider web. These past few weeks, while still warm by our previous standards, have been trending favorably cooler, especially the overnight temperatures. So this early-morning sighting, with the chill in the air and little beads of water accentuating the web's pretty pattern, brought welcome memories of autumn in the northeast – even though fall foliage is still hard to find around these Texas parts. The live oak where Ms. Spider made her home certainly isn't going to provide any – but it can boast a silken charm all its own right now.
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Last modified: November 20, 2020
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