Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Last Friday morning, as I was working near the pond, I bumped my head on the Persian Vitex for about the umpteenth time. After the obligatory period of cussing and fussing, and wishing I'd planted it at least a few more inches back, I took a look at that area and had a brainstorm. If the bed were just 12-18 inches further out into the path, I'd be unable to walk into the trajectory of the offending branch. And that's when the lightning bolt hit: because this part of the path usually ends up flooding during heavy rains, it would make a great spot for a rain garden! Next thing the Head Gardener knew, I'd dragooned her into moving concrete pavers and river rock around to enlarge the bed.

Having attended a session on rain gardening at the Garden Writers' symposium in September, and taken a few hopefully cogent notes, I thought I'd share what I learned and tell you about how my process differed. I was really pleased that the speakers
, Helen Kraus and Anne Spafford, gave some definitions that helped me better understand the difference between wetlands, bogs and rain gardens. A wetland, they told us, has standing water and thus is wet all the time. In a bog, however, the soil stays saturated (so you don't see the water that's there). Dry soil conditions mean low moisture around the roots AND the crowns of the plants. A rain garden, according to the speakers/co-authors of RAIN GARDENING IN THE SOUTH, falls somewhere in between wetlands/bogs and dry conditions. In choosing plants for a rain garden, you're looking for plants that can tolerate not only short periods of flooding but also extended periods of drought. (The inconsistent moisture levels mean that edibles aren't well suited to rain gardens.) You want to site your rain garden not less than 10 feet from your house and choose a spot where you'll get the maximum catchment. You don't want water to stand in the area for over 3 days. Here in my part of Texas, I imagine mosquito dunks or mosquito bits would be necessary if water stands for longer than 24 hours.

The authors' process for making a rain bed starts with digging out the area for your rain garden. If you have clay soil, as I do, 3 inches deep is sufficient. Sandy soil should be dug out 6 inches. You berm up the soil on the low side of the rain garden and amend the bed area with compost. Strictly speaking, a rain garden should be near a downspout or have a swale leading from a downspout to the rain garden to channel the flow of water and
slow down the water velocity. Once you've directed the water flow from the downspout, you can plant and mulch. Then wait for rain!

My process was a little different. I'm not a real stickler for the rules, have y'all noticed? This rain garden is not near a downspout and I did nothing to direct the flow of water. The area behind the moss rocks in the picture above is the rain garden. The original path area was crushed granite. Weed problems led me to put a layer of river rock on top of the granite and embed 12 inch square concrete pavers in that rock. To make my rain garden, I pulled up about 6 to 8 concrete pavers and raked out a good portion of the river rocks. I moved the moss rock edging from just under the walking iris you see at the top of the picture and stacked it to make a new front edge.

The Head Gardener, prudent soul that she is, had cautioned me to make sure that the area beside the pond was graded properly. As she pointed out, we didn't want the soil from the rain garden washing into the pond. I assured her that I'd been careful in my arrangement of rocks and in my digging but I did a little judicious watering to test the drainage, as seen below. The Head Gardener allowed me to add the rest of the compost afterwards but said she'd reserve judgment on the quality of the construction until the next rainstorm. (More on that shortly.)

After filling the new bed area with compost, I planted some walking iris, Louisiana iris and a pitcher plant (Sarracenia 'Dana's Delight). I set my one gallon pots of Indian Pinks in the area to see how they handled the light conditions there over the next few days. I also set a small birdbath just under the abusive branch of the Persian Vitex to make sure I couldn't run into it!

After having spent several hours over the course of the weekend getting this accomplished, my next goal was to see what happened in an actual rainstorm and Mother Nature obliged me on Monday with a downpour. While it wasn't of the epic proportions experienced back in April, it was still a very impressive storm. The rain garden performed nicely: it was fairly soggy by the time I was able to get out there and take a look around 1 p.m. Monday.

None of the soil washed into the pond, however. In fact, the pond overflowed into the rain garden which seems serendipitous. The path still flooded but I was expecting it to do so; this was much too small an area to make a significant difference. In case you're wondering (because I would be) "then why do it at all?", I'm big on experimenting in the garden. I wanted to see whether it would work on a small scale and get a feel for the process. It's possible I'll do something of this sort on a larger scale out front in tandem with the new drainage being installed next month. The Executive Producer and I decided we needed to do something to prevent a repeat of the damage done by April's floods. Current plans call for gutters to be connected to a drain that will run under the path on the south side of the house (west of the area pictured), through a bed in the front and then out to the street. I'm hoping we can tweak the plans and install downspout diverters of some kind to channel the rain into the front gardens. The Head Gardener and I both really hate the thought of all that rain going out into the street and down the storm drains.

Monday, October 26, 2009

New York, New York, It's A Wonderful Town ...

Last November, the Executive Producer and I marked our 25th wedding anniversary and agreed that a trip to NYC would be just the thing to mark the occasion . What with one thing and another, though, it took us until a month before our 26th to celebrate that silver milestone! What a celebration it was ... despite inclement weather, we saw and did as much as we could over a long weekend.

OK, this is the part where I kick myself and y'all gasp in horror: I didn't bring my camera on the trip. In my defense, I wanted to focus on seeing the city through my own eyes rather than a camera lens (and I also didn't want to be weighed down by i). Of course I regret that decision now but I did take a few shots with the iPhone. The shot at the top is of us walking through Strawberry Fields, the memorial garden for John Lennon. Since this was our first visit to NYC, we took the Gray Line bus tours that give you an overview of the city. We chose to sit up on top of the double decker bus, which explains the ponchos we're wearing: it was raining, it was windy, it was cold and we enjoyed it immensely!

In deference to the Executive Producer, Strawberry Fields was the only garden we visited. He more than made up for the lack of garden time, though, by taking me to Flute Champagne Bar and treating me to several absolutely splendid glasses of bubbly. This after we'd been to the old Studio 54, which is now a theater, to see Carrie Fisher's one-woman show, Wishful Drinking ... appropriately enough. We wound up that evening at Bobby Flay's Bar Americain, where the food and the service were just fabulous. Our first night there, we dined at Craft, an experience which was spectacular from beginning to end, and proved that chef Tom Colicchio richly deserves his position as head judge of TV's Top Chef. We toured the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday morning and I did get to see my Monets: the water lilies triptych moved me to tears, as expected. On the recommendation of the maitre d' at Craft, we lunched at the MOMA Cafe ... an excellent choice. That evening we ate at Lattanzi Ristorante, a small Italian restaurant in Midtown recommended by Mr. McGregor's Daughter and her family. Molto bene! We visited the Carnegie Club afterwards for a Sinatra tribute show by New York singer Steven Maglio. (Since we see a fair number of musicals thanks to the touring companies that come through Houston, we agreed we didn't want to blow our budget on full price tickets to any of those, nor did we want to spend any portion of our limited time in line at the discount tickets booth. It was a good decision for us.)

A word re hotels: the EP originally booked us into The Pod Hotel on 51st Street in Midtown, since it fit our budget and location needs. While the Pod's decor is very hip, the room was about as close as you can get to miniscule without being in Europe. After one night on a hard and uncomfortable bed, I called the Marriott Courtyard I'd spotted the previous evening and discovered that for only $6 more per night, we could have a spacious and comfortable room AND bed! The EP isn't big on doing research so in future, I believe I'll take care of that part of things. I was glad that we spent one night there, though, if only because of the view from our window. When I looked out on Saturday morning, this charming rooftop garden was just below us. I added some highlights and fill light so you could see details.

Our final morning there, we ate breakfast at a local diner, which did not disappoint. (We both marveled at the fact that we had nothing but great meals our entire visit. It's not often you can say that.) The most disappointing thing about the entire trip, actually, was the fabulous weather on Monday, the day we left ... I wanted so badly to stay and spend the day walking around Greenwich Village or SoHo, ducking in and out of shops and restaurants, soaking in the beautiful fall day. It gives us a great reason to go back, though.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Head Gardener Speaks: Bloom Day, October 2009

She Who Must Be Obeyed has charged me with the task of writing the October Bloom Day post for our corner of Katy, since she is too sunk in despondency and despair to speak. She spent the morning moping in one of the green chairs out back, sipping coffee and muttering about the return of summer weather, the fickleness of Mother Nature, and the utter unfairness of it all. One would think I did not caution her last week that her wanton celebration of fall's arrival was unseemly and could only lead to heartbreak. I take no joy in being proven right (although SWMBO would doubtless claim otherwise). Another cool front arrives tonight, according to the forecasters, but SWMBO will be occupied with helping me pack for a long weekend in New York City so do not expect any rapturous video documentation of the front's arrival to be forthcoming.

On to happier topics: complain though she might about the weather, even SWMBO would admit that we have much to celebrate bloom-wise. Time constraints only permit me to show a few of those blooms, however. (I don't trust her to pack without me!) First up is the favorite fall perennial of us both: the charming Tricyrtis, aka Toad Lily. This little beauty is part of a passalong clump from our late friend Amy and we cherish them dearly.

Having finally convinced her that Clematis will bloom on our corner of Katy only if planted and then allowed to remain in the SAME SPOT henceforward, we are both delighted by the multiple blooms now appearing on one of the plants rescued from Lowe's 2 years ago. The tag has been lost or misplaced but I believe it to be Niobe. If anyone can confirm or dispute that identification, kindly let me know. I will do my best to ensure that it is properly tagged.

The Salvia leucantha, Mexican Bush Sage, are tempting bees and butterflies alike. We caught a Gulf Fritillary nectaring on the plant in the rose bed.

This Aster has been absolutely covered in lavender-blue blooms. I've spoken to SWMBO and believe she is in agreement with me: we need more fall-blooming asters here at Wit's End.

Caesalpinia pulcherrima, Pride of Barbados, is still small but packs a powerful punch of color.

I must admit to being greatly perplexed at first as to what is going on with the Abelmoschus. In the first picture, you see this member of the Mallow family attired in the rosy hue I expect of her.

This one, however, is a bloom of a different color. The first is in partial shade, the second in full sun. The soil conditions are similar, as are moisture levels. Interesting. I shall ponder it further.

Since neither SheWMBO or I planted this Cassia alata (Candlestick plant) in the front beds, we're still pondering how the seeds made it out there from the stash that was stored in the garage. She collected them in January from Amy's garden and left them in the potting closet. Perhaps birds are responsible. Or perhaps the Head Gardener is playing mind games with SWMBO. I'll never tell.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Serendipitous Sunday Stroll

The Head Gardener and I took a few moments to relax in the back garden earlier, sipping an insouciant little Sauvignon Blanc, and gazing at the lone cosmos bloom in dismay ... it's a lovely bloom but we had rather hoped to see more than ONE bloom given that we sowed 4 or 5 packets of seed this summer. We do not know what happened to the rest of the seeds but are fully cognizant that they may lie dormant until next summer when we will be inundated with cosmos. There is no picture of it because the Head Gardener failed to remind me it should be documented. Or I failed to remind her. Whatever.

We then betook ourselves to stroll out front for a moment and I'm so glad we did. I did a double take when I saw this cheery Chocolate Cherry sunflower ... but as the HG reminded me, we also sowed a few packets of sunflower seeds sometime in mid-summer. The Lone Sunman, the Head Gardener calls it. She disagrees with my identification of the variety: she believes it's Autumn Beauty instead. What do y'all think?

A note re the weather: the coolth is slowly but steadily diminishing and we are told it could hit 90 degrees later this week before another front moves through. I'm practicing remaining stoic in the face of adversity should this happen. The HG, however, has other ideas: she plans to decamp to New York City next weekend and enjoy some REAL fall weather!

Friday, October 9, 2009

It's Here! It's Here!

You might want to turn the volume down on your speakers before watching this ... pardon my enthusiasm, I realize it may seem a bit over the top to those who don't garden in Texas!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Three for Thursday: October 8, 2009

On Sunday, September 27th, I was one of the lucky garden writers who stayed over to tour various private gardens in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. As it turned out, we were luckier in more than just the gardening department. I suggest you read this account by Southern Living's Steve Bender of how the other tour group, who intended to tour sustainable gardens, spent their day. Then mosey back over here to my corner of Katy and take a look at Helen Yoest's garden, as seen through my camera lens.

While our visit did include some unexpected drama, discourtesy of an irascible neighbor's hissy fit, nothing could have upstaged the beauty and delight we found in Helen's gardens. I felt very much in my element there from the moment the bus pulled up in front of her home. Like me, Helen is surrounded by fairly conventional landscapes in what seemed to be, like mine, a fairly staid suburban community. Helen's garden is unconventional, but delightfully so: exuberant and expressive, playful and imaginative, and I only wish I'd had more time to savor it and taken more pictures to share.

The front garden, where castor beans and conifers comingle

A feast for the senses of all its visitors: birds, butterflies & garden writers all find
much to enjoy in this bountiful border on the lower terrace in back.

There are also vignettes of serenity and simplicity scattered
about the gardens.

Many thanks to Helen for her gracious Southern hospitality and to all the GWA folks in North Carolina who worked so hard to make our time there such a pleasure!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Through the Garden Gate: Monday, October 5th

You never know what you might find when you stroll through the garden gate. It might take you places you've never been before ...

Like the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

There are all sorts of strange and wonderful things down that path and the others that wind through the NCBG.

Pitcher plants with their curiously shaped and patterned blooms.

An elegant insect posing with dignity and aplomb:

Wildflowers that the Head Gardener and I were unable to identify:

And amidst it all, sculptures by artists from around the world, an
exhibit entitled "Celebrating Life Forces" ... what an unexpected and delightful surprise in the woods of Chapel Hill! There wasn't time to see them all but I did capture a few images.

This statue is
Inukshuk by Chris Gregory of Efland, North Carolina, resembling the signposts of the Inuktitut people above the Arctic Circle. The artist sees those signposts as "symbols of hope and safety", something as necessary in today's "hostile and unforgiving world" as they were in that of the Inuktitut.

I didn't catch the name of this sculpture or its artist. The Head Gardener is rather freaked out by the faces, calling them "oddly demented". She did not take it well when I asked if there were such a thing as evenly demented.

Align CenterMargarita Leon of Maracaibo, Venezuela created these pieces to represent Water, Wind and Fire, three life elements. Each element was portrayed by a flower.

I didn't get the name of this sculpture, either, but I loved how it came together with the tree behind it from this vantage point. The tree appears as if it's growing up through a silver sheath.

My favorite was probably this garden bench, though. I believe I've mentioned before that I have a certain predilection for rusty stuff. I hated to leave it behind but I couldn't figure out how to get it through security.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Longed For Date Has Arrived ...

Finally, it's October 1st and in a cruel twist of fate, it's warmer and more humid on my corner of Katy than it has been in days. Mother Nature is toying with me ... it would be very easy to sag into a chair in the air-conditioned comfort of my home and ponder downheartedly the vagaries of the real SWMBO. (As noted in her post last week, the Head Gardener is fond of referring to me as She Who Must Be Obeyed.) However, I am preparing myself to soldier on, chin up and shoulders back, mindful that October 1st is NOT the date on which the weather magically changes from summer to fall but merely a personal benchmark, a reminder that fall will indeed come again.

While I wait, not necessarily patiently, for weather in which it's actually a pleasure to garden, I'll catch up on the myriad chores that need doing on MCOK. Thanks to fairly regular rainfall while I was away at the Garden Writers' symposium, there's an abundance of new growth in the gardens. The Head Gardener is not pleased with the ratio of weeds to desirable plants, however, and is muttering dire imprecations against the interlopers. They are not long for this world.

A brief word re GWA before I head outside for the day: it was an exhilarating and overwhelming experience and I hope to offer some observations when I've had some time to reflect on it all. I came home with new friendships formed and lessons learned, as well as with a dizzying array of PLANTS! At top you see them as they were when I first unpacked them ... below is a picture of them, repotted and adjusting to culture shock. I'll get them into the ground in the next couple of weeks, I hope.

"The difference between a plant in a pot and a plant in the soil
is the difference between a man in a hotel and a man in his own home."
-Beverley Nichols,
Rhapsody in Green