Tuesday, January 29, 2008

One less ...

The world's a different place just before dawn as I walk the dogs. The birds are beginning their morning songs and sometimes I'll catch raccoons or opossums on their way back to their hiding places after their night out. In a neighborhood like mine, it sometimes seems as if the yards have been almost loved to death with fertilizers, sprays, enthusiastic pruning, and our need to conform to the suburban ideal - making these quiet morning moments with nature more precious.

Because of where I live, I see most "critters" as a sign of healing and gardening success - each bird, beneficial insect, butterfly, spider, earthworm, frog, or even snake that finds my yard hospitable. The red-tailed hawks and occasional heron are particular delights, even though they sometimes make a meal of fish from my pond. Don't get me wrong, I realize this view is the fruit of privilege. My family's next meal is not dependent on protecting the crop from rabbits or agricultural blight. But I feel pure joy at the sight of something wild in this tamed landscape.

So, although it seems like gardener heresy, one of my favorite things is seeing three small field rabbits each morning in my neighbor's yard. Their silhouettes in the dark look like chocolate Easter bunnies backlit by the streetlight - always dependably there, standing warily or nibbling at something that seems to grow only in that spot. They were there this morning as we walked by, and I expected them to be gone by the time we came back by. That's our daily routine. But, this morning one remained behind. His lifeless body crumpled by a car, the dogs and I were all startled to find him there in the street.

Why mention it? Because it seems appropriate to mark the passing of an individual. It's easy to see change when it happens on a grand scale or in large numbers. But it actually happens in small increments, like the loss of one small rabbit or the cultivation of a single garden that provides habitat and refuge for a bit of something wild. I'd love to hear how you're creating change in your patch of the planet. And click on the link to the left to read what Carol is doing for creative rabbit damage control at May Dreams Gardens!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pansies and Crape Myrtles

This winter I've found myself thinking a lot about my grandmother. It took me a while to realize what was triggering the memories, but I finally realized it was two things: purple pansies and crape myrtles.
We lived in the Mojave Desert when I was a child, and Grandma always kept a bed of purple petunias growing in front of the house. Given the heat, the sand, and the lack of available moisture and nutrients, you can imagine how much fussing she must have done over those straggly plants to produce blooms. She really wanted violets, but learned to settle for and appreciate her pet petunias. They were unfailingly deep purple - as if they didn't come in any other color.

Here in Texas, winter is an ideal time to enjoy pansies. (I know - pansies, not petunias.) You see them mass planted in commercial landscapes and popping out of pots on front porches all over town - the masses of color almost always including Grandma's purple. So, I think of her and how much she would have enjoyed them.

We also seem to have a fondness in central Texas for crape myrtles. My particular neighborhood is thick with them. This time of year much of their foliage is gone, and sometimes we have an opportunity to appreciate their silvery smooth, mottled bark and their stark outlines against the sky. I say "sometimes" because it seems that at some point in the distant past it became "common knowledge" that one should cut them way back. It probably started with one landscaping company, and observers decided it just must be the way "experts" took care of them.

It always reminds me of the story about the proper way to cook a roast. A family of good cooks thought you always cut the roast in half before you put it in the pan. That's the way the matriarch of the family had always done it, and it was the best tasting roast they could imagine. One year, that same matriarch was in the kitchen during the preparation of the roast and asked why they were cutting it in half. When they said it was because she had always done it that way, she replied that was only because the pan she had was too small and she had to cut the meat to make it fit.

The truth is that these crape crew cuts don't just look bad, they don't support the health of the tree. How we choose to prune them affects not only the shape, but the vigor and soundness of the tree. Topping, as these crew cuts are called, produces numerous new shoots that develop rapidly. That sounds good, you say, as the tree will appear bushy. However, the new shoots form weak attachments to the main trunk and tend to be less healthy. The number of leaves is reduced, and thereby the trees' ability to produce food energy through photosynthesis. Weaker trees are more susceptible to attack by insects and disease, and can result in early death. In mature trees, large pruning cuts are slower to heal and more vulnerable to decay.

So, why do crape myrtles remind me of my grandmother? We lived in the Mojave Desert because the warm, dry climate was supposed to be good for the crippling arthritis she lived with all her life. When I see those knobby, misshapen knuckles topping crape myrtles, I feel an urge to soothe them - just as I felt when I saw my grandmother's hands.
Here's some reliable information from the AggieHorticulture website on proper techniques for crape myrtle care:
They don't need to be pruned to flower. However, proper thinning will open up the growth of the tree and allow air circulation. This will reduce the possibility of powdery mildew growth. You should wait until early spring to thin, as trees cut in December through February suffer greater winter damage. Don't cut any wood thicker than a pencil. And, remember. With proper care, some of these trees naturally grow to a statuesque height of 35 feet. See the very first photo for a glimpse of how beautiful a stand of well cared for crape myrtles can be. Grandma would've loved them. Especially the purple flowered ones.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Like a Bird on a Wire

Do you have a Hitchcock moment when you see large groups of grackles or other birds gathering in the trees? The majority opinion seems to be that they are a nuisance, owing to the "paint job" they leave where they roost.
Odd as it may seem, I enjoy them. Yes, I find it mildly irritating to have to clean grackle spackle off the rocks around the pond. But I've found a well placed rubber snake is effective crowd control.
When pairs of the sleek black males preen and strut and screech with their beaks straight up to the sky, how can you not laugh?
And, have you ever noticed that they appear to maintain fairly consistent "personal space" between each individual but still seem to prefer belonging to a larger group? Hmmm....makes me think we might not be so different in some ways. Here's another reason:

Years ago, I was the chef at a downtown hotel. One day I realized I had been hearing an odd noise repeating for some time and went to investigate. A female grackle was standing at the glass entry door of the restaurant screeching for attention and occasionally pecking the glass. I gently opened the door and talked to her. She cocked her head sideways but stood her ground. I could see that she had some type of tumor or growth on the side of her head, but she didn't appear ill. Wanting to be a good host, I did what chefs do - I went inside and found food and drink to offer her (a lid from a jar filled with water, some crushed sunflower seeds, and some chopped up bacon. I mean, really, we weren't exactly prepared for this particular guest.) By this time, the staff and customers were all watching, but she ate and drank as if she'd ordered from the menu. When she was through, she flew off.

Grack returned every day, and we all began to watch for her. We learned that she would approach other adult grackles then flutter and beg like a baby bird. The other adults would then feed her.

As time went on, she seemed to become a bit unsteady but still showed up for her meals. One day, the entire staff of the restaurant watched as she flew up to the door but could not stand or remain upright. All of us, and I mean all of us, were crying when she died.

What a gift that goofy bird was ...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

You Had Me at Woof!

We have a saying in the South - "preachin' to the choir." That's what today's blog is like. If you've ever enjoyed the love and companionship of an animal, there's no need to try to explain the value and difference it can make in your life. If you haven't, it's not something words can convey and you're just going to be aggravated with me for talking about it in a blog that's primarily about gardening. But remember, day one I promised you things that made me stop and think "wow".

That said, today I'd like to introduce you to Simon. He's currently looking for a home in the Austin area, and this is what the Austin Humane Society folks have to say about him:

"Oh, Simon! This dog has stolen hearts all over Texas. Simon was found in the Giddings Animal Shelter with a crushed front leg and a terrible case of heartworms. A very nice gentleman saw what a great dog Simon is and was determined to save Simon's life. With help from a very generous vet in Giddings, Simon's leg was amputated and he was transferred to The Austin Humane Society for his heartworm treatment and rehabilitation. He got through his heartworm treatment with no problems. He has never missed the leg he lost. This dog had some hard living before he came to us. We could all learn something about optimism from Simon. He loves all people, other dogs, and cats. His favorite thing is a belly rub and snuggling. Simon is very strong and needs some leash training, but he will give so much more in return. He is the strongest 3 legged dog you will ever meet! Be careful, he has a way with people. He is very easy to fall in love with. Ask anyone who has ever met him!"

Simon sounds like a great excuse to be Playin' Outside! Doesn't seem like you can call yourself a gardener if you've not met the challenge of gardening with dogs (or cats, for that matter.) And who can't identify with another being who has had a hard time and needs some snuggling. So, if you're not reading this years after it was posted in January 2008, and if there's room in your heart and home, post a comment and I'll e-mail pictures to you (that pic up there of my guys is just to grab your attention, but he's just as cute.) If you have a big heart and don't even care what Mr. Wonderful looks like, call Layla at the Humane Society for adoption info - Layla Hanna, Intake Supervisor/Foster Care Coordinator 512-646-7387 ext. 231 lhanna@austinhumanesociety.org

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Heart of Our Garden

After visiting this blog for the first time, a friend asked who built our pond. She suggested others might be interested in the details, too. Okay ... short answer is that it was Steven's (my husband's), idea, my design, and our combined sweat.

We killed the existing straggly ficus by covering it with heavy mil black plastic and let the Texas sun cook it for several months (solar weeding.) Steven dug out the area and cleared plant runners and roots. Then I worked on rock placement that would hopefully discourage our water-loving dogs. I'm also chief maintenance engineer, meaning that anyone can do what it takes to keep a pond healthy with a little vigilance. And, it's another excuse to be "Playin' Outside".

In the beginning, I have to admit I was constantly checking the skimmer for fish (one earned the name "Columbus" for its adventures in the skimmer and into the rocks.) Until we made the overflow drain I mention later, fluctuations in water levels during heavy rains would sometimes strand fish in the rocks. But the skimmer no longer calls my name for cleaning every couple of seconds. It functions just as well, if not better, when checked every couple of weeks. When the leaves fall heavily, I check it daily and remove the excess.

Water falls over rocks to a shallow ledge designed to give the birds a place to drink and bathe. (See the bottom right of the photo below.) It then flows to the plant ledge which is about 2 feet deep, then steps down to about 4 feet deep to give fish protection during the extreme cold (or hot) weather. Water flows through a skimmer with a filter, and is pumped back up to the filter fall where there's a biological filter. That's a total of 3 filters: prefilter on the pump, screen filter in the skimmer, and biological filter in the filter fall.

We used an 1800 gallon per hour pump for a pond volume we estimated to be between 450 and 600 gallons, wanting to allow for adequate circulation and enough force coming down from the waterfall. We lined the floor of the hole with carpet scraps, and used the heaviest gauge flexible liner we could find. If we reduced the likelihood of having to replace it, it was well worth the cost. There's an overflow "vent" hidden at water level on one side for those Texas downpours. That little design feature was retrofitted after one too many nights out there with a bucket in the middle of a storm.

We currently have Japanese Ryukin goldfish, seven at last count. One has a misshapen tail and has to come inside to the mystery snail tank during the winter. We found he can't keep himself upright when his metabolism slows in the winter. Either that, or he just likes to eat year-round and is very clever. (We stop feeding when the temps are consistently below about 55 degrees.) We initially lost a few fish to the local red tail hawks, but that seems to have stopped. The fish actually seem to learn to avoid the skimmer weir and must be better at hiding from predatory birds. Contrary to popular wisdom, raccoons have not been a problem.

We couldn't have done it without the classes offered by Steve at Hill Country Water Gardens in Cedar Park. They actually construct a shallow pond on their grounds while the classes watch and ask a bazillion questions. (Then they give a discount on materials to everyone in the class.) They also have lots of ponds on the grounds to show what's possible and the staff seems to have an endless supply of patience.

We can't stress enough the change the pond has made in our backyard. It's inviting, soothing, and very effective at masking the less enjoyable sounds of suburban living.  It has truly become the heart of our garden. It's cooling in the Texas summer heat, and a great excuse to go "play outside". And no, it doesn't encourage mosquitos (the water moves too much for them to stick around.) It does, however, attract dragonflies. Above and below are pictures of a couple of our regulars ...

In a perfect world, it should probably get more sun and be located where it would collect fewer leaves. However, our pond is just what we wanted, just where we wanted it, and brings us a lot of happiness with very little work. Regularly scheduled visits with a mental health professional would certainly cost more than the approximately $1000 we invested in materials, plants, and fish. 

Sunday, January 20, 2008

After the Freeze

A crocosmia "Lucifer" and a "Cajun Spice" German iris peeking up through the mulch and leaf litter by the pond. Sustained low temps (last night in the 20's) left icy patches on the pond rocks and pushed the frost damage further down toward the ground. Tips and new growth had been damaged before, but most of the salvias, "Mexican petunias", and other tender items are gone now. This bed by the pond is usually dominated by a salvia puberula. Here's a picture of its vivid blooms as they appear from late summer until the frosts start. They start out a tight ball and slowly unfurl from the bottom to resemble a more typical salvia bloom. Thanks to my friend, Bill Hyland, for finding its botanical name when the nursery could only tell me it was "Rosy Sage".
The row cover over the hoja santa is just too tempting a toy for the squirrels. They seem to make a game of tearing it up. The plant freezes down to the ground, but the bit of protection provided by the row cover seems to give it a head start at coming back in the spring.
Here's Bradybeans (above) rooting around in the same corner just a month earlier and keeping the world safe from squirrels (below.) Get a good look at that right hip - there's no hip socket, just muscle holding his leg in place! You'd never know it when he rockets around the yard and jumps several feet in the air after squirrels. He's got a great story I'll save for another post.

The greenhouse successfully kept the chill at bay, protecting orchids, a five year old jalapeno plant, and a variety of scented geraniums. The coral vine that usually covers the bamboo lattice has died down for the season, as well as the variety of tomato plants usually populating the "grow boxes" you see here. Only strawberries, swiss chard, and the peas continue to thrive in the cold - and the peas are looking a bit frostbitten! Dwarf Gray Sugar is covered with blooms and the promise of more tiny pea pods.
This one Zebrina delphinium still looks great, hosting a well-chilled but tasty breakfast of its sap for a leaf footed bug this morning. Poor plants never seem to get a break from the bugs in an organic garden, but so far the bugs haven't seemed to tip the balance in their favor. Other "Zebrinas" in the garden are looking much worse from the sustained low temps, even though they're larger than this little guy. To the left are hyacinths (I think!) There are also some native tulips in this same area that start out looking much the same.

Here's my favorite polar bear - Gable, my white Labrador Retriever.

This antique rose, Sam Houston, still had a couple of buds and one open bloom. The roses Martha Gonzales and Bengal Tiger also still had blooms up until this freeze. We'll see what happens if the temps stay low for any length of time. I know folks gardening where it's really cold are laughing at all this talk of "low temps". Yeah, we know we're spoiled.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Amazing how exposed it feels when you start this blogging process! I half way expect comments like "What makes you think you're interesting, missie?" Well, I'm probably not. But, some amazing people have shared their time and knowledge with me; so I'm hoping to serve as a bridge between them and anyone who bothers to read my blog. The Travis County Master Gardeners are at the top of that list! take a look at the greenhouse I built after they showed me how. It made it through the snow and ice of winter 2006 and is still going strong this "winter".

Friday, January 18, 2008

These pictures show our pond from its infancy (three winters and one large snake ago) to this past summer when a wonderful Southern Leopard Frog moved in and began serenading us every night. The other frog (in the bottom photo) is hyla cinerea, Green Treefrog.  Go to the Univ of Florida website for info and to hear the leopard frog's two unique songs at the bottom of their page:

Purple Martin Party Time!

Travis Audubon hosted a Purple Martin Colony visit this past Saturday next to the historic home of Laura Joseph.  Laura started...