Saturday, December 31, 2011

Through the Garden Gate: One Last Look at 2011

I'm not sorry to see the end of 2011, a year that brought extremes of both temperature and drought to my corner of Katy.  The Head Gardener and I were frequently at our wits' end here at Wit's End.  Thankfully, the last month of the year brought both rain and blessedly cooler temperatures to south central Texas, refreshing both gardens and gardeners.

The HG and I count ourselves not just fortunate but blessed by the friendship, support and camaraderie of our fellow gardeners, around Texas, across the country and throughout the world.   We are grateful for all y'all did to help us get through this often hellatious year.  2012 is dawning and with it, new hope for both gardens and gardeners.  May it be a year of bountiful blooms, not just in the garden but in your hearts, minds and lives.   

Happy New Year, y'all!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Still Blooming On My Corner of Katy: Bloom Day December 2011

Take a virtual walk around my corner of Katy and see what's still blooming!

Thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens, our Bloom Day hostess with the mostest!

Three for Thursday: The Eggman Cometh ...

Yesterday afternoon, as I was puttering about the front yard, a car pulled up to my house and I saw the smiling face of my good friend and fellow Houston garden blogger, David of Tropical Texana. Now I won't say I wasn't delighted to see him just for the pleasure of his company but my delight was greatly amplified by a most welcome gift!

Custom packaging, no less!

Feast your eyes on these beauties ... I'll feast on their goodness!

And feast I did ... don't they look beautiful in my egg-yolk yellow Copco pan?  This pan was a gift from my grandmother almost 30 years ago.  It came with a note that said, "Merry Christmas! Eat more eggs!"  

Thank you, David and flock, for enabling me to fulfill Grand's wishes both healthfully and beautifully.  I hope the girls enjoyed their thank you gift from me ... I sent David home with a gallon pot of chickweed we pulled from around the beds!  (Come back any time ... no, seriously ... ANY time!)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mulch Ado About Something: A Lesson, Part Two

Sifted mulch
Anyone care to guess how I've spent my time since my last post?  

This is one of two mulch heaps created by my efficient team of workers.
With rain predicted for both days last weekend, and the Head Gardener uncharacteristically optimistic about the forecast, on that Saturday we dragooned the the Executive Producer to help shift the piles of mulch into containers.  I'd already gotten a fair number of bags of Black Kow composted manure and Micro-Life organic fertilizer spread in the beds along the south fence.  It did rain on Saturday, which watered in those amendments nicely.  Since then, I've been working to spread the mulch and tidy beds as I go.  It's slow going but only one bin of sifted mulch remains.  While I was working in that area, I decided to screen the contents of the half whiskey barrel which has been serving as a compost bin. Oh, mama, did that produce some gorgeous fluffy compost!  Sorry I can't show y'all but my gloves were too dirty to handle the iPhone.

Now comes the next challenge: planting that long stretch of bed that's empty.  There have been various and sundry annuals and perennials in that area but I never seem to have found the right planting scheme for that area.  I think I'm getting a handle on it but we shall see.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Mulch Ado About Something: A Lesson

I know I've posted very little in recent weeks and there's a reason for that, totally unrelated to the holidays or my mother's health.  I have spent what I consider to be an inordinate amount of time undoing that which was done in spring.  To review, after years of NOT putting down mulch in the back gardens, I decided this spring that a nice layer of mulch on the beds was indicated.  I knew it meant I would have to reseed the annuals that bring such beauty and grace to my cottage garden planting scheme in the spring.  Since the summer of 2010 was so hot and dry, though, I felt mulch would help the perennials, trees and shrubs make it through the summer of 2011 with less stress, should it prove to be as hellatious.   I could not have been more wrong, about the mulch OR the summer.   

I'd asked my friend and garden guru Otahal* and his crew to do the heavy lifting and spreading.  Because they had an unexpected opening in their busy schedule, I had to scramble to find a soil yard that could deliver on short notice.  I had used a soil yard on Saums Road previously - for products other than mulch - and so I called them to see whether they could accommodate me.  When they said yes, I placed an order for 6 yards of hardwood mulch and they promised to have it here within a couple of hours.  Did I have any idea of the source of  their hardwood mulch?  Had I ever made a visit to their soil yard to view - and FEEL - the product I was buying?  Friends, I had not ... and it was a grievous error on my part. 

Only after the driver of the dump truck had unloaded the mulch on my driveway and I felt the first stirrings of concern, did I query the origins of the mulch.  It was not reassuring to hear the driver say that shredded wood pallets were amongst the materials used to make the mulch.  As Otahal and I surveyed the mulch, my concerns grew.  At that point, there was nothing we could do but soldier on and hope for the best.  

Y'all know what kind of summer we endured here at Wits' End.  As the mercury climbed over 100 day after day after day after day after day after day after day, as the days rolled by (a little Sondheim moment there) - and rain failed to fall - I despaired as I watched the mulch mat together and form a barrier to repel my watering efforts.  I fluffed the mulch where I could, when I could but my paltry efforts weren't enough to make a difference.  

A few weeks ago, as I began planting some of the newly purchased shrubs and perennials I'd bought to add more structure to the gardens, each time I pulled back the mulch layer, I was  horrified to see just how dry and lifeless the soil beneath had become.  The most significant indication of its lack of fertility was the absence of the earthworms that grace other areas of the gardens.  I decided there and then that something had to be done.  

I'd seen a compost sifter/screener on Pinterest that I thought would work for screening the mulch.  I talked to my home improvements guy, Brent Cook**,  and he agreed to build a similar one for me in exchange for some of the computer assistance I've given him over recent months.  Within a couple of days, I had a sturdy screener***, with notches on front and back so it could fit on top of the wheelbarrow.  And for almost three weeks now, I've spent most of my time in the garden removing and sifting mulch, placing the discarded chunks and shreds in empty pots and tubs.  The picture below is most but not all of them.

It doesn't look so bad in that picture, does it?  Let's take a closer look:

After telling myself for weeks that I really should hire someone to do this job for me, and continuing to slog on by myself, this past Monday I looked at the remaining bed along the south fence and conceded that I couldn't go on.  Since Otahal and crew are swamped with bigger jobs, I called upon a local landscaper to assist me.  His crew is here today and they are making much shorter work of the sifting process than I could on my own, as you can see below.  In fact, they're almost done! 

When it comes to mulch, my friends, please learn from my experience!   First and foremost, know what you're buying: take the time to visit the soil yard and check out their product(s).  Some soil yards have samples of their offerings in their sales office but after this experience, I would ask to view the actual pile from which they'll scoop before committing to a purchase.  If they balk at letting you do so, walk away and find another vendor.   Save yourself time and money and a dump truck load of regrets!

* Otahal and I went to junior high together and he was one of my late friend MB's great loves. A lifelong love of plants caused him to ditch his job as an industrial pharmacologist and become a garden designer/grower/installer.  He and I collaborated on the front gardens last year.

**If you live in the Katy/West Houston area and need a reliable contractor, I've been very happy with the work Brent Cook has done for me over the last 14 years.  E-mail me if you'd like his number.  

***The compost screener was built from 1x4's and 1/2 inch hardware cloth.  It took them all of 20 minutes and it should last me for years.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Three for Thursday: Not Just Another Monarch Monday

As I relaxed in my chair Monday morning, and surveyed the garden, I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a Monarch butterfly sitting motionless on a bamboo stake.  Taking a closer look, I spotted an empty chrysalis hanging from the clematis vine.   I watched as the newly emerged butterfly slowly crept up the stake in search of sunlight, then paused at the top of the short stake, uncertain of where to go.  So I stepped in to lend a helping hand.

I sat with this regal beauty for several minutes in awe and wonder, thanking her for the opportunity to bid her welcome to the world and help her prepare for her first flight.  I cheered softly each time she expanded her wings, pumping body fluid through her soft veins. 

I marveled at her perfection: I later read in my BUTTERFLIES OF HOUSTON AND SOUTHEAST TEXAS that the wings can easily be damaged during the expansion and hardening process.  I carefully placed her atop a post of the nearby trellis and she remained there for over an hour, hardening her wings so they could support her in flight.

When it was time for her first flight,  I was privileged to see her make it.  She dipped and soared through the garden, accompanied by my cheers - loud ones this time.  It was a joyful moment and I am still thankful beyond words that I was able to participate in it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A High Time On The High Line

Having only been to New York City in the company of non-gardeners, I  have caught only glimpses here and there of the horticultural wonders to be found in the Big Apple.  To be so close to a vast array of beautiful public gardens and unable to visit them at my leisure has been torture for me.  (Don't even ask how it affects the Head Gardener ... )  When we were there back in January, it wasn't quite so painful, the gardens being covered in snow.  On our recent sojourn there in October, the roadside plantings on the taxi ride from LaGuardia to our hotel were just donning their fall colors, making me even more determined to visit at least one garden this trip.  Fortunately, my friend and travel companion Bonnie understands my obsession, since she has a sister who is similarly obsessed.  Our destination on a pleasant Saturday morning was the High Line, a former elevated railway that has been turned into a public park.  

Have I ever mentioned that the HG and I are seriously directionally impaired? Never ask us to read a map or give directions ... we will invariably send you in the direction the opposite of that needed.  Unfortunately, Bonnie shares that impairment, so we must rely on the kindness of strangers to get where we're going when we're together. With the help of our taxi driver and fellow visitors to the city, we arrived at last at the 14th street elevator, which took us up to the High Line.  Here's what we saw that day.

I love this plant but I'm not certain what it is.   It's certainly Aster-like: would my East Coast readers let me know if that's correct?  Update: based on the High Line plant lists and reader input, I believe this is Aster tartaricus 'Jindai".

I love how the paving was designed with grooves for plants to run or reseed.

I thought my Ex-Asters at home were floriferous until I saw these!

ID, please?  I love the shocking pink blooms/fruits!
Just one view of what's going on below the High Line.

I was much enamored of the random underplantings of Autumn Crocus beneath taller perennials and shrubs. Every time I saw them, they brought a smile to my face.  

Benches and chaise longues are placed so visitors can relax with a book, sip a latte, or talk with friends as they take in the view of the river.  More genius. 

This is something I can grow and I think it actually flowers more for us here in Texas! Lespedeza is on my wish list.

One last plant ID, if y'all would?  This was growing in the beds planted along the water feature, as seen below.  

I thought this was a brilliant way to include the  sight and sound of running water. Water runs along gravel pavers and recirculates  through the grating.  

This pocket planting in a corner along the railing was one of my favorites.  The view across the street also pleased.  Enlarge the picture and you should just make out the word "Posto", as in Del Posto, the abfab restaurant collaboration of Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich. 
I have to stop here and tell y'all a humorous anecdote about this restaurant sighting.  Our first night in NYC, we had hoped to go to Mario Batali's Babbo but were unable to get reservations.  Del Posto did have room for us and we were treated to an absolutely fabulous dining experience from the moment we walked in until the moment we left.  It was the single most expensive meal we've ever eaten and it was worth every penny!  Because we arrived at night, we had no clue that the restaurant was just across the street from the High Line.  When Bonnie and I discovered that on Saturday, we took pictures and she sent one to her husband Danny, who was back at the hotel watching football in the company of the Executive Producer.  Their response: "Don't go in!"  So we didn't.  We went next door instead and had a late lunch at Colicchio and Sons, where we had the two best cocktails ever!  

This is my favorite planting:  I loved the juxtaposition of fall color against a typical NYC backdrop of buildings and billboards.
These folks are waiting in line to be part of the Social Soup Experiment hosted by Friends of the High Line.  

We only saw a small part of the High Line that day but I came away with one big impression.  The most amazing thing about the High Line to me was not the plantings, but the way the park brought people together and created a community.   There was a palpable sense of camaraderie and delight that makes me smile even now, weeks after my visit.  I look forward to my next visit!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Mighty Wind's A-Blowin' ...

Insert sound of wind above.
The first major cold front of the season is sweeping through the greater Houston area, my corner of Katy included. The wind is gusting up to 20 mph in some areas, accounting for an unusual fit of prudence on my part: I have deemed it best NOT to work in the gardens today and risk a relapse of my recent respiratory troubles.  We leave on Thursday for a long weekend in the Big Apple and I'd like to be healthy enough to enjoy myself thoroughly.  I've been checking the weather for New York City and it promises to be brisk, although nothing like the post-blizzard conditions we experienced during our January visit.  This time I hope to see some of the gardens of New York City: the High Line is tops on my list of must-sees, as well as the Conservatory Gardens in Central Park.  

Head Undergardener In Charge of Basking, doing her usual stellar job
Meanwhile, back at Wit's End, the gardens will have to fend for themselves.  I'm hoping the housesitters/undergardeners will live up to their promise to keep containers watered.  I've been working to reduce the number of containers in the gardens so their chores shouldn't be too onerous.  The Head Gardener will be traveling with me, of course: the woman and I are inseparable ... some might say indistinguishable.   I have concrete evidence that proves otherwise but I'm keeping it under wraps until such time as I deem it imperative to bring it forth.

Speaking of concrete, there's a new book coming out from the good folks at Timber Press.  Concrete Garden Projects "offers up an inspiring array of creative projects that can be made for next to nothing".   To celebrate the book's release, some lucky gardener will win not only their own copy of the book, but a $25 gift certificate to Home Depot  and a set of foam number molds as shown on the Timber Press website's video.  The contest ends on October 21st, so head on over there and enter (click on any of the links in this paragraph to get there).  I'm looking forward to receiving a complimentary copy of the book from Timber Press in return for mentioning the contest here.  (Note to FTC: No other consideration was requested/given by Timber Press or given/requested by me in exchange for this mention.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

If It's The 15th, It Must Be Bloom Day!

Here at Wit's End, it seems like Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day sneaks up on us each month.  At least the Head Gardener and I have an excuse this time: we've been battling a nasty cold virus that sapped us of energy and led, as it inevitably does, to a bout of bronchitis.  We've spent very little time in the gardens this past week but we are happy to report that we're on the mend.  We felt well enough to venture out with camera in hand and capture images of some of the many blooms on this corner.

Number one on our list of plants we need more of: Asters!  Aren't they glorious?

Barbados Cherry (Malpighia glabra) may be the #1 heat- and drought-tolerant plant we grow. This is just one of several that sailed through summer.

Rose 'La Marne' responded quite positively to last Sunday's rain.

 Coral Vine (Antigonon leptopus) is another summer stalwart.
The pollinators are giddy with delight over the abundance of blooms.
True confessions time: I'd planned to paint the inside of the fence around the back gardens this month.  Because it would require removing the vines so the painters could work, I've postponed the project until there's not quite so many creatures dependent on the vines.
'Belinda's Dream' is blooming but she had a rough summer & it shows. Those leggy canes of hers aren't attractive.  I'm hoping some judicious pruning at the right time will result in renewed vigor.
In the midst of this thicket of Turk's Cap 'Pam's Pink' and Mexican Bauhinia (B. mexicana), I  spotted a splash of  violet-red and made a happy discovery.
A lone Clematis bloom, variety unknown. Gorgeous, isn't she?

I fear the bottlebrush bloomed just a few days too late for the hummingbirds.  

Butterfly Vine (Mascagna macroptera) may be the definition of acid yellow. 

Cuphea 'David Verity' in front of Panicum 'Ruby Ribbons'

Dwarf Pomegranate blooms are embarassingly voluptuous.

Miniature Hamelia has smaller leaves and bloom clusters than the big-leaved varieties. The blooms are beyond plentiful, though.

I don't know why I thought I didn't like Ice Plant (Delosperma).  The starry yellow blooms are enchanting!

Cosmos, Castor Bean (Ricinis communis) and Texas Sage 'Rio Bravo' are a gaudy combination on the corner.

The bees are abuzz over Justicia 'Fruit Cocktail'.  

I bought a Patrick's Abutilon at Barton Springs Nursery in Austin last year.  I've had limited success with Abutilons before so I'm delighted this one is doing so well.
If asked to name my favorite fall-blooming perennial, I'd be lying if I said anything other than Toad Lily (Tricyrtis).  They're not showy but I adore them beyond reason. 

I plan to add more of this Scutellaria 'Fuchsia Fountains' out front.
As always, a tip of the trowel to the Head Gardener at May Dreams Gardens, who originated Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.  Check out the links to other bloggers' posts!

Monday, October 3, 2011

It's That Time of Year Again ...

An ex-Aster made it through the summer & is celebrating fall!
Summer's hellatious temperatures and fiendish humidity levels have finally given way to the kind of weather that makes living in south central Texas not merely bearable but a real pleasure.  Even the normally cranky HG has mellowed and has yet to remind me that we're liable to go back into the 90s at least once more before fall weather settles in for a stay on our corner of Katy.  She's so blissed out by the need for a light jacket in the early morning, when we sit in the garden for our first jolt of java, that she scares me a little.  She gets over it, though.
The white cardinal vine is not very mannerly but because it's host to hummingbirds and pollinators, I'm allowing it free run of the back fence.
While the temperatures have moderated, the drought is still a real and present danger.  While strong thunderstorms rolled through the greater Houston area Thursday evening, and Katy was drenched,  the rain apparently did little more than refresh foliage.  Over an inch of rain fell in the course of several hours, but only the mulch was moist in my gardens: the soil below remained dry.    Even more depressing was hearing predictions from a state climatologist that this drought could last until 2020.  To think of the devastation this year being repeated for another nine summers is heartbreaking. Even one more summer like that of 2011 could mean a vastly different landscape for much of Texas, and especially for Houston.  Houston has always been a city of trees: according to a recent article in the Houston Chronicle, 660 million trees grace the eight-county area of and surrounding greater Houston. An estimate in that article puts losses at 10 percent. 66 million trees gone ... mind-boggling.

The Texas Olive (Cordia boissieri) is just starting to bloom.  Why haven't I grown you before?
Well, shoot, I didn't start this post with the intention to spread a message of gloom and doom - that's the HG's domain.  You'd think she'd clouted me in the head and taken over this post, much as certain garden fairies in Indiana are wont to do!  I wanted to celebrate the change in the weather, not continue my lamentations about how much awful I've had to suffer through.  I do occasionally feel the need to justify all the whinging I've inflicted upon my readers about the weather. More than that, though, I want those of y'all outside of Texas to understand the larger reality behind my  own petty complaints.  I also write to remind myself how fortunate I am that my own gardens continue to bring beauty and inspiration to me and to others. 
Amen and Damn Skippy!