Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dirt Dharma

Ahh, more room in the bed. Many thanks to Ms Brenda for the supply of rotted oak leaves, so rare and precious in the summer.

Last weekend at the Houston Zen Center, I gave a talk about transforming dirt into garden soil.
Working with the soil can be a great example of using the Buddhist Paramitas. What the heck are Paramitas and what do they have to do with dirt? Hear here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Blue Jay Story

Once when the Mr and I were in the garden at our old house, we heard blue jays raise the alarm. When one jay starts yelling “Steve! Steve!”, every other jay around will show up yelling “Steve!” also. Sometimes what is interesting to all the jays named Steve is interesting to us too, like the time they found a 4’ Texas rat snake along the drainage channel. (Not too dangerous we found out, but very impressive.) This time the yelling was coming from just behind the garage. We went to the corner and looked around.

In the middle of six or so jays was one jay thrashing on the chainlink fence. He’s being mobbed by the others, I thought. Gorgeous blue, turquoise and white feathers were flashing around in a frenzy. Then I saw that its leg was trapped by the fence.

The other birds vanished silently when I went up to the unfortunate one. I thought it would snap his leg in the panic before I grabbed it and closed its wings in my hands. How did it get its leg caught in that little loop? “Go get the bolt cutters, quick!” I told my husband. The moment before he returned with them, I got the loop open by hand and freed the bird. “Go get the kid, quick!” He is not a man who takes orders but he went.

As I held the jay in my hands, the bird seemed at ease. It even sang a little. It sang a soft chortling song, fluid and lovely.

The kid and husband arrived. I knelt to show my son, who was about three then. I opened my hands and the bird flew up like a magic trick.

Photo from birdpictures.org

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Garden on a Branch

Resurrection ferns (Polypodium polypoidioides) are looking pretty good today. Rain makes them unfurl their crispy brown fronds into the lushness you see here. They can go for years without rain and still be alive. It’s a great trick that more plants should learn.

These epiphytes are growing on a neighbor’s venerable old live oak. My live oak at about 20 years is still too young to interest resurrection ferns.

On Outdoor Kitchens

I've got a few bemused comments on the phenomenon of the outdoor kitchen. I have yet to visit one or have a client request one, but I can see from the gardening magazines and home improvement TV that the idea is hugely popular.

Possibly, outdoor kitchens work fine in other climates. But in Houston, I have doubts. I assume the first step for meal prep would be to run a leaf blower. Would guests want to eat anything from a kitchen which, by its nature, has unlimited access for cockroaches? Even in my slackest maintenance moments for my indoor kitchen, I do not have opossums taking a walk on the countertop. What ever else the chef must do, he has to plan on really cleaning every surface before the first tomato is sliced.

What makes the outdoor kitchen odd to me is it is not just that it is unclean. I’m not too fastidious--I eat things right out of the garden without washing them. I grill outside and camp. But the other thing is that the outdoor kitchen is no bargain at $15,000+. I am pretty sure that the $15,000 is a price tag for an idea of leisure, good company and meals together. If you have the money but not the life, maybe it seems like a good trade.

I thought last weekend’s TNLA Landscape Expo would have outdoor kitchens galore, but no. Maybe we are seeing the end of the fad in general, or maybe the market for outdoor kitchens in this area is nil and the industry knows it.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Padding Around Cactus King

I’d forgotten all about Cactus King until my friend Mr. Nelson asked me if I’d ever been to the nursery with a giant cactus statue visable from Interstate 45. Cactus King used to be in my neighborhood and I’d come and look at stuff I was too poor to buy (Of course I had no interest in the $1.99 cacti). Now it’s way on the north side of town.

You may think that in Texas, cacti would not merit a special trip to view. But Houston is verdant and juicy, and as long as we’re not bumped up any more USDA zones, cacti and agaves are uncommon.

When Mr. Nelson’s and my schedule finally matched up for a field trip, it was an appropriately scorching, bright day. I suppose it was the desert plant-equivalent of seeing Japanese maples in autumn by the full moon. We were the only fools out on the lot. We went into a greenhouse. Myriad cacti. When we went out again, the air actually felt cool. But look at what we saw while we were there! It was worth a little roasting.

Photographing was a pain in the ass literally. More than once I backed up into something spiky.

This is me next to an absurd Euphorbia. I’m holding a mystery plant I wanted to ask Lyn the proprietor about. I got a light scolding for having taken it off the ‘do not touch rare and unusual’ table. Lyn is also the sculptor. See and hear him in action:

On top of all this, the prices are good. Can there possibly be another nursery quite like Cactus King anywhere? Show me if there is.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lost in Paradise

I was at a gathering of architects and someone told me where to go to see the finest new public garden in Houston. I am in need of adventures for The Kid, who is pathetically bored by summer holidays now, so off we go. We’re looking for a coffee house in a garden behind the library at Rice University. I am picturing a little leftover space where the students have done something terrific.

When we reach the library, we walk through a sleek, formal landscape that I don’t remember seeing before, in search of the coffee house garden. Eventually it dawns on me we’re in the very place we were trying to find! I can feel my frame of reference change. The spectacular white building over there is Brochstein Pavilion, in other words, the coffee shop. This IS the garden.

[dang, I just can't get these photos to line up]
We get cold drinks and sit in the bistro tables by one of the cool black trough fountains. It begins to rain and the fine drops feel nice filtered down through the allee of elms overhead. Everyone else leaves.

I’ll spare you my observations (well, most of them) about the use of the axis and the historical precedents. I am still amused by my expectation of a tiny funky garden by students. But after all, it was my old architecture prof Stephen Fox who told me about this place. And this is a Less is More kind of garden. Three species are planted here. Only three colors here too: black furnishings, green foliage, and buff granite. But really its richness is in its careful craftsmanship, its relationship to the campus, and as a stage for human interaction.

Say ‘garden’, and what comes to anyone’s mind is something somewhere on the continuum of landscapes from wilderness to plaza. A garden is a pretty flexible concept. My mental garden must be getting closer to wilderness than a plaza. But anyway, I like knowing that the word ‘paradise’ originally meant a garden more like the symmetrical, fountain-centered one at Rice University than the vacation locales we now call paradise.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Broken Sidewalk Blues

Who says there’s no topography in Houston? It’s mostly in the sidewalks wherever they pass a live oak. The roots snap those 4" thick slabs of concrete like matzoh.

My own oaks are not as big as the one in the photo above, but they've already broken up the city sidewalk. I need my driveway repoured (ah, check back on this one—the driveway will be pervious pavement) so I reasoned that we should have the crummy existing sidewalk taken out at the same time.

The hitch is that I refuse to spend money and resources to replace the sidewalk with more concrete, only to see it broken up next year by the natural and expected growth of the trees.

I made nifty architectural drawings in plan and section showing how I would use my horde of salvaged brick, set on a bed of stabilized sand, to replace the sidewalk. I took the drawings to the Houston permit office. After sitting down to four different desks, I was directed to go away and call the City Forester. He would make an visit to assess my sidewalk for a variance. Alas, the City Forester was on vacation. It occurred to me that the standard American vacation allotment of two weeks sounded quite generous, at that time anyway.

Meanwhile, the masons who came to give estimates told me the City would nix my bricks. So I investigated which alternatives will actually get the blessing of the City. My dizzying array of choices is: decomposed granite gravel or a steel panel. Using either of these requires City Forester’s approval.

No problem, I thought. I worked out this scheme: I would get the decomposed granite gravel sidewalk, then after it passed inspection, I would scrape off the top inches and set my bricks in the gravel. I am telling you this now because it’s not going to happen at all.

The City Forester refuses to give variance because replacing the sidewalk here with anything other than more concrete is a “personal preference” and as such, irrelevant. Actually my personal preference is that pedestrians be safe on the sidewalk in front of my house, and the trees be healthy. Isn't it a peculiar policy to require homeowners to use concrete, obviously not a great material for the application?

Now I don't think my crummy sidewalk is too bad afterall. I’ll keep it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Remember Spring?

Redbud and water oak blooming together on a morning in March.

A bronze New Zealand flax (may it rest in peace) and jonquils

Red Rocket columbines (or was it Red Lantern?), walking iris, and wood ferns

I fondly recalled these scenes during the dark nonstop drizzle that Edouard brought today. Oh, I'm not complaining--Thanks rain gods!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Here Comes Hurricane Edouard

Okay! All the contents of my rickety potting shed, the plants in dangly baskets, construction site junk, and other light garden accoutrement are now stacked in the brand new garage. Cars will still be outside, due to shortage of a driveway.

One more thing remains. The portable toilet brought in for the construction workers is still here. The contractor tells me that maybe it will get picked up today, maybe not. Let’s assume not, so we can find the funny side to an impending storm. Want to guess which way the toilet will fall when the winds get up to 50 miles an hour? Will it fall over on Celeste the fig tree? Will it crash into the gate or on the car parked beside it? Will the Mister and I lash the outhouse to the fence, as an unplanned way to celebrate togetherness on our anniversary?

Check back for the results, which I will post when the power is restored! Not to spoil the anticipation, but I don’t think there is anything inside for the outhouse to spew when it blows over.