Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Good Garden!

This photo looks like a stroll in a park doesn’t it? It’s actually the front garden (“front yard” doesn’t seem to fit here) of a house on my extended dog walking route, right in the inner loop of town.

The concrete block house, set on a two lots, is very austere but you can hardly see it from the sidewalk. It was pushed way back to let the front garden and courtyard space predominate.

To me, the garden is not overgrown, just woodsy. It has plants in loose drifts, not in a hodgepodge. Have you ever noticed that nature doesn’t plant a hodgepodge, only people do?

And there is art! Here’s a sculpture by a Houston artist, the remarkable Gertrude Barnstone. Just look at all those inland sea oats in the foreground. Well, thanks for walking a moment with me.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ai Yi Ailanthus

Today’s post is the first in the series Plants Not To Plant. Ailanthus altissima, aka Tree of Heaven, is not the worst looking tree you could have spring up overnight. Its bloom season is eye candy, I’ll give it that. But those pink lantern shaped flowers give way to seeds and every one of those bastards germinates.

They sprout in your garden, where you eventually pull them all out. They sprout in your neighbor’s garden, where they never get pulled out, and in two years you are surrounded by an ailanthus forest breaking into bloom.

I have a theory that the exotic trees which reproduce so aggravatingly well have seeds that are not well liked by local wildlife.

Now you may ask who actually plants Ailanthus if it is on the way to covering the planet by itself. There is a line of thinking that where the urban environment is so degraded, only the kind of tree that survives there anyway should be planted. While I generally agree that any tree is better than no tree, we get an idea where this handbasket is going if Ailanthus is the one.
This photo tells why I pick on Ailanthus today. There they are to the upper right, on my neighbors' side of the fence. They were born this spring and already 5’ tall. I’m gearing up for the diplomatic version of ‘Hi yall, can I cut down your trees?’

Fortunately my neighbors are such lovely people. They even like my flamingo.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tetanus Shot Boosts my Gardening Peace of Mind

It has long been on my list of things to do: go get a tetanus booster. If you have the basic set from childhood, you need a boost every ten years. Mine expired in the last century. Tetanus bacteria are in the dirt where we gardeners hang out, and they can get inside whenever you puncture yourself, like when you miss the rose stem and prune your compost coated knuckle.

My nurse friend Ms Erica has gruesome tales of terminal tetanus patients she encountered in Mexico, where many people don’t get immunized. She can entertain you during dinner with information about how bones break with the force of locked up tetanic muscles.

So this information was in my mind a last week when something odd started happening in my face. It felt like the sensation you get when you are sucking a lemon drop and someone makes you laugh. My cheek and jaw muscles were tightening on their own, once on Wednesday, then quite a few times on Thursday.

That fits the early symptoms of tetanus quite nicely, I found. I did not have any surface wounds of note, but I had done some volunteer pruning in a rank jungly garden where I just know I was thrashing around in every make and model of microbe. I wondered if it was just a matter of time until I developed the “sardonic smile” symptom, at which point I would definitely make a move toward the hospital. I pictured myself sardonically smiling as I said to the Mister: Can take me to the emergency room, now?

The next day came and went without any cheek misbehavior or further indications of tetanus. What caused that I do not know. However I took it as a hint and made an appointment at the clinic, and today I got my injection. It's just one shot in the upper arm, practically painless for me, and no achy complications so far. So my tale is rather anticlimactic, as I will not be one of the 60 people who develop tetanus in the US annually. I do hope that none of you will be either.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Plants to Plant: Texas Wild Olive/Cordia boissieri

Texas Wild Olive is pretty drought tolerant but you wouldn’t know think it by looking at those lush leaves. This little tree is a fast grower and wants to be as wide as it is tall, about 15'. I prune mine up to reveal more of the multi-trunks. The pruning of the branches is tricky since it tends to fork with three stems at the same point.

This tree is not indigenous to Houston—it hails from South Texas some 600 miles away. But when I plant something from further down the migration pathway, I like to think that some critter gets to enjoy the last Texas Wild Olive on the way to Canada.

I have heard that to attract hummingbirds, one should plant flowers in order of their preference from red (the highest) through oranges and yellows to White (the least preferred). But get this: I see hummingbirds getting into the Texas Wild Olive flowers before the sun comes up. At that time, white is the only color that stands out. I have also seen a sphinx moth visiting the tree at the same time as a hummingbird, and you can’t really get them mixed up.
Black swallowtails are the butterfly that seems to like Texas Wild Olive best.

There is a green olive-sized fruit that never seems to get eaten. Certainly not by me, as I’ve heard it’s inedible. I am a big fan of weird fruit, but maybe in this case ‘inedible’ is a nice way of saying poisonous.

Hardly any cons...
I only want to criticize this tree when it molts in March while everything else is springing forth with fresh vitality. The Texas Wild Olive just stands there with spotty brown and yellow leaves and looks like crap.
Also, Texas Wild Olive has scentless flowers which are just a missed opportunity. The white flowers of the world have a monopoly on the best floral odors: magnolias, butterfly ginger, crinums, natal plum, gardenias, jasmine…

One last thing: I planted my Texas Wild Olive to commemorate a wedding. Ms Alex, this is what has become of the nursery gift certificate you gave me for hosting your shower!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Something about Mary

I come from a long line of farming people and I get out into the garden by instinct. If I am too long from the dirt and sunlight I get a restless feeling that I call my Peasant Uprising. I count the minutes until I can get outside and pull some weeds. As it is for many, it is often my job which keeps me from my garden. Ironically, my job is designing other people’s gardens and landscapes, and helping to get them constructed.

My family and I live and garden at a 80+ year old house in the Montrose. However, the front garden is still pretty young, and the back garden has been a construction site til recently. Now some very cool things are in the plans: a pawpaw orchard, rain swales, solar lighting, all permeable paving, a parte terre vegetable garden with a horse trough fountain.

While my garden is getting established, I'll offer my observations on plants I recommend for this area, ones I warn against, favorite gardens, landscape myth busting, side trips and whatever else I hope will entertain and inform a fellow gardener.

An Idea Becomes a Houston Garden Blog

The genesis of this blog came about this way: I went to check on my pears, which were hanging there looking an unripe green. Dang if there wasn’t a hole in one where something had recently gnawed. My greed and competition kicked in and I picked all the pears right then. Actually, the whole crop amounted to 7 pears, since ‘Spalding’ has only been in the ground a year. This also explains why I didn’t know what a ripe pear off this tree was going to look like.

I didn’t know what it would taste like, either, but I can tell you now that a Spalding pear is a marvelous crunchy Asian pear with a European pear shape. While I polished off one still warm from the sun, I thought: How am I going to remember when to pick these pears next year? Gardeners used to keep logs of when and how things were planted, treated, harvested. Maybe I should get one going.

Well, you can see what happened to that line of thought. I arrived at the idea of a blog, but believe me, I am not going to write a farmer’s almanac for Houston here. See Urban Harvest for that. I will not give you my garden’s to do list. I promise I will not tell you about the Houston weather either (At any given moment you like or dislike it—so what?) Instead, I will offer you what seems like the most engaging of my many garden-related lines of thought. I hope that you will enjoy and be even inspired by them.