Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nut grass has balls

Admit it, you admire the will to live that nut grass demonstrates. This one takes its job as a pernicious weed seriously by growing up out of 3” of gravel. Underneath that is a layer of filter fabric, and under that, soil which was scraped and pounded level and compact, and was pretty poor to begin with. Some of its nut grass companions are also hooking a couple hard turns to grow up from under the flagstones.

I pull them up, but their tubers stay under the filter fabric and send up new shoots. Sometimes the nodules do pull up out of the flower beds, and I stop to nick one with a fingernail and smell it. Did you ever notice what a delicious rootbeer scent a nut grass nut has?

You may not believe it from the unappetizing photo here, but finding a recipe for nut grass was on my garden geek to-do list. Somehow I associated it with the drink horchata so recently, I checked that. The internet provided a selection of informative and conflicting facts or factoids about nut grass (actually a sedge, not grass) which I’ll summarize:

The delicious nut grass tubers come from yellow nut sedge or chufa / Cyperus esculentis. The ones I have growing are different--purple nut sedge / Cyperus rotunda, described as ‘bitter’. I’m a little disappointed. I thought I might cool off some day after weeding with a glass of home made horchata. However, the aromatic oil is extracted for ayurvedic medicine (alas, not one of my projects) and the nuts are eaten in Africa as a last resort famine food.

So famine is one method of controlling nut grass. Times are not that bad at my house, thanks. A 20% vinegar solution sprayed down into the gap where the stalk was just pulled will get results too. But it will be on the second round, because nut grass is pretty determined to survive that, as well.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Seedlings, no tag

These shorties sprouted from the pits of some exotic fruit eaten 3+ years ago. Cherimoya? Mamey? Sapotes? Canistel? Weeds? The tags are long gone.

Both seedlings were in a pot which was plundered by squirrels, haphazardly shifted around the garden whenever our construction site encroached, stowed in the dense shade of a tree and rarely watered, abandoned outside all winter, then repotted. It is amazing that they have survived my plant propagation 'technique'.

Maybe someone will recognize the leaves and if so, tell me please! I think it might be nice to know what I am growing.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Unkind words about sagos

In California, apparently you lock down a good specimen of sago / Cycas revoluta. In Houston, the issue has not come up--at least not for me, because I don’t design with them. I do get asked to pull out badly placed specimens where an eye-gouging mammoth has grown from a Boston fern-sized charmer.

Dare ya to walk through there.

The reason they don’t get filched is that we are near sago saturation here, with a dull stiff cycad in almost every yard and landscape. Besides looking ‘tropical’ (though they hail from Japan), I reckon sagos’ popularity is supported by their easy propagation, durability and fast growth, for a cycad. (They flush out yearly with an increasing number of fronds. Compare that to the mingy frond per year on a Dioon edule). With the ease of making more sagos, filching them should be irrelevant.

Recently a subcontractor who works with me was telling about a job he’d been hired to do: relocate a sago that had a cable running through the trunk and into a subterranean concrete footing. He tripled the price. We shook our heads at the wonder of it.

It would be too much to hope that California would come and take these sagos away.

What am I missing here? What is the crazy appeal of this plant? Do they actually get pirated away in Houston, too?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What has flowers on it right now?

I'd like to break the dry spell in this garden blog with the simplest of topics:

Plants That Have Blooms On Them Today.

I have no commentary, just springly, slightly fuzzy photos.

Crossvine / Bignonia capreolata 'Tangerine Beauty'

Altas pear

Nun's orchid / Phaius tankervilliae

Cherry laurel / Prunus lauroceracus

A precocious little Meyer lemon

Cilantro going to seed

Carolina jessamine /Gelsemium sempervirens

Monday, February 9, 2009

Yes, The Alamo is in a garden

You just can’t miss an opportunity to go to San Antonio for a vintage Airstream trailer rally with friends. So I went. But while in town, I also stopped in at the former Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as The Alamo.

I had a personal reason for wanting to visit. Boning up on genealogy I recently learned that some of my antepasados married there. Although I came 285 years too late for the wedding, I enjoyed taking in the botanical garden feeling of the Alamo compound.

A succulent bed of many textures, all of them prickly. My phone's camera did its best with these images but it was an overcast day.

Cherries flowering by Sabal palms…an odd mix. They used a mulch of pecan shells in this bed:

A closeup of the pecan shell mulch. I like the stuff. It looks good and useful to me.

The sleek trunks of Texas persimmon, Diospyros texana, below. Native Texas trees had a strong showing in the plantings.

An historical acequia, also known as an irrigation ditch, makes a water feature complete with koi. That is Yucca rostrata looking like a couple of Ziggy Stardust wigs. An out of focus Erythrina is behind it.

A well photographed cactus beside the chapel. After I took this picture, I noticed other tourists aiming their cameras at it, too.

Despite the arid impression given by the gravel and succulents in the photos, the overall feel of the grounds is to me one of lushness. Ancient live oaks shade hidden patios, and varieties of palm trees punctuate the planting areas. Never mind that I was at the site of a desperate battle and military shrine--I just wanted to sit down on a bench with a good margarita and raise a glass to my ancestors.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Rock out

Now the pile of piles is sold, sorted, donated, restacked elsewhere, gone. This load of limestone blocks is the last thing to go. Those blocks made mighty good bed edging in my old garden, and I brought them along when we moved here. I am a bit sentimental about them.

An elderly lady who gave me these blocks said they were from the demolished Houston High School. The name suggests that at one time this megapolis of Houston had a single high school. Now that is a mental exercise to contemplate! Unfortunately it's not hard to grasp that the school building was demolished—that is just what we do with our public buildings in this city.

An old photo of the Houston High School building can be seen here.

The historic rubble is still with me, in the new, relocated pile of piles. It may well sit there hosting a succession of geckos for another geological age, but I am hoping it becomes sculpture or garden bones again soon.

I kicked little animals out into the cold

Over yonder in the yard was a pile of piles which I called The Quarry. It was full of good useful stuff--salvaged bricks, leftover stone—but it looked bad and it sprawled across my best garden real estate. (A new neighbor saw it once and burst out laughing, ‘You said you were a landscape designer?’) Sure, the quarry was a blight, but it was full of potential and had actual dollar value.

It was also habitat. I didn’t realize that until one cold day I started dismantling the pile to sell and donate. I evicted:

An unhappy cold skink rudely awakened from hibernation. Immediately after the photo he and his kin won a vacation at the balmy compost pile.

A miserable leopard gecko. All geckos were compt an upgrade to the crawl space under the house. They share the accommodations again with numerous toads, unphotographed.

Earthworms. (Not pictured: slugs, wood roaches, all sizes)

A little frog. Where did it go?? It jumped, apparently into the ether. I could not find it again to bring it to safety. Remorse.

Since that cold day I began on the quarry, I’ve continued the sorting and dismantling on the occasional warm afternoon. Yesterday I finished! A great swath of future garden has been revealed. I hope the little animals will reposess it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What's Growing in the Wall?

It’s a maidenhair fern/Adiantum capillis-veneris, and a number of otherwise nice people have offered to yank it out for me. They don’t know marvelous when they see it.

I used to have big pots of maidenhair fern on the porch where they could get shade and, on principle, water. Whenever I came or went from the house I had to pass them and give them water when the soil was less than damp.

That was the theory, but in practice I would tear off to work, noting the pitiful state of the garden as a whole, and then drag back home after dark.

When the maidenhair had dwindled to a few pale fronds begging for merciful death, I composted them and transplanted walking iris into the pots for instant success. They sit on Prairie Style brick pilasters bookending the porch steps, and one of the pilasters has a big crack in its concrete topper. When the iris pots are watered, moisture seeps through the concrete.

This is a lot like the dripping cliffs of central Texas which are the maidenhair fern’s natural habitat. So, naturally, a fern has grown out of the mortar. It’s not a home maintenance error, it’s a marvel.

Unearthed treasures

Years ago I volunteered in Turkey to help build and landscape a bus shelter on a roundabout. Loads of sand were brought in by dump trucks, and the junk in the loads fascinated me. There were ancient bits of tiles, glass gone iridescent with age, and chips of colorful marble. It happened that the volunteer organizer was an archeology student. I would bring her some little treasure for diagnosis. She would say ‘Hmm. Byzantine’ and chuck it over her shoulder.

When I am digging in Houston, I think about the Turkish archeologist when the shovel gritches against something buried. ‘Hmm. Rebar…from last year’. As my house was built in 1923, there actually are several decades of possible treasures to find. I use the term treasure very loosely here. I am easily pleased.
A buckle (with staghorn fern / Platycereum bifurcatum mugging in the background)

Aluminum fence post finials

A fossilized gas heater decoration

Pot stand from a rangetop. It can still be a pot stand, for terra cotta pots on the patio.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Midway through major modifications

In 2008 I referred here to a construction site formerly known as my garden. I’ve got some progress photos to show you the new back garden. It's fledging from its nest of hoarded plants and rock piles amongst the former construction site.

A view of the patio. The little tree by the tank is a Mexican orchid tree (Bauhinia mexicana). All summer it flaunts lacy white flowers that pollinators love. I too am partial to bauhinias and I want to grow at least one of every make. Sadly, one can not eat them, otherwise they would be true favorites. In front of the column is a night blooming cereus to enjoy while lounging on the patio of a summer eve.

The steps to the garage form a bench and the planter you see here. Those vintage patio chairs need cushions before they get sat on again. In fact, as I look at these photos I see a dozen more projects staring me down.

For example, there is the raw field of dirt you see beyond the walkway here:

I have been visualizing a kitchen garden there so long that I sort of ceased noticing it is really bare. The bamboo hastily jammed into the beds in the foreground remains there to hold sheets over the little citrus trees if it should freeze again.
I love to see a garden’s ‘Before’ photos, and I do have some to show. I’ll post those whenever the garden is closer to looking like a proper ‘After’.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bamboo at MAC

I went up to the Margaret Austin Center to see if they needed another volunteer to wrangle bamboo at their grove-thinning wingding today. They did.

This stand of green-streaked gold culms is Painted bamboo/Bambusa vulgaris vittata. The organizer of the bamboo maintenance assault, Jill, thinks it makes the best sounding flutes. She says that Margaret Austin came back from a visit to a monastery in Thailand with two rhizomes. Now look at it, thirty years later:

Here is bit of the other bamboo grove, of a species I don’t know. The architecture dominates the scene, no? If I have the history straight, that building was designed and constructed by University of Houston architecture students who later became part of the Ant Farm Collective. The Ant Farm doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe you know one of their projects, Cadillac Ranch, in Amarillo, Texas:

The cars were painted pink for breast cancer awareness, summer 2006.

Another funky building, the meeting hall at the Margaret Austin Center:
These canes will be crafted into flutes, fences, and furniture.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On vintage trailers, landscape architects

I’m a lazy blogger this month. But my girl Ms Alex has been quite industrious with her new project: restoring a 1950 Spartan aluminum trailer as a camp house. Such an endeavor would be incomplete without a blog of its own.

Today, Ms Alex posted kind words about my landscaping work. Not content to let her blow my horn, I’ve got to direct everyone’s attention to it, here.

I must clarify one thing. She calls me a landscape architect, although I haven’t sat for my licensing exams, or passed, to become said landscape architect. I tell that to her and to everyone, but do they listen? It’s sweet of my friends to want to give me a career promotion. But the difference between a landscape designer (me) and a landscape architect is a not a minor distinction, legally and in practice. That could well be another posting soon, which may be July at the rate I’ve been writing lately.
[Steps down from soapbox]

Someday, when I am truly a landscape architect, Ms Alex and I are going to sit out by that fine old trailer, survey our work with satisfaction, and crack a bottle of Veuve Cliquot.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Back to the earth

We had a marvelous shelter dog named Thorn. Even people who didn’t like dogs liked Thorn. Like a good friend of the human sort, she was intelligent, trusting, and light of heart. When I think of her, she is running for joy in wild circuits around the Kid, with her big smile on. You may wonder why the Kid named a lovely dog ‘Thorn’. Well, he was calling himself Spike then, and in need of a sidekick.

Thorn died far too young, but that’s a story for another time, or for another blog.

Her ashes were returned to us in a box, which has been stored in a container with Halloween decorations (!?) under my bed for five years. From the perspective of feng shui, or even voodoo, this was probably not the best location. It was always my intention to scatter Thorn’s ashes in the back garden. But the monumental construction project, the garage apartment, was impending.

On January 1st, at last, I set Thorn’s ashes free in the new garden.

It feels like a proper send off for a loved companion. It feels auspicious to have done it on the first day of a new year.

For the record: I would also like to have my ashes set free. When the time comes, you friends and family will get a little sachet of my grit, a party favor from the funeral. Toss me out somewhere in the wide world. For someone who loves the garden and the outdoors, it is fitting to become a soil amendment.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Putting in pawpaws

The pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) has so much of what I like in a plant. It is a good looking ornamental tree with big tropical leaves. Although something of an oddity, it is native to these parts and is host to the zebra swallowtail butterfly. You can grow it in part shade. And on top of all that, it makes an edible, creamy fruit.

photo Wikimedia

I think I have a perfect location for a row of pawpaw trees. Our garage apartment on the north and the neighbor’s on the south create an alley. It gets intermittent or dappled sun from miscellaneous trees and the neighbor’s garage. The soil is damp there longer than anywhere else in the garden. The soil was not as rich or well draining as needed, so steps were taken to fix that.

Ms Brenda, garden lady, dug the 8’ by 60’ wasteland along the back fence. All I asked was that the ground to be broken and weeds removed, but she likes to dig down as deep as the fork and to turn the soil over. All manner of corroded metal and concrete chunklets were removed. A plastic horse, aluminum fence post finials, and a buckle that may be silver turned up.

To build up the bed for the pawpaws, I mined some mounds of soil created during the garage construction project, and wheeled loads of it around to the new bed. In one area I found a Neapolitan confection of soil: a layer of bright white leftover mason’s sand, over the deep black of a former compost pile, on pale brown clay.

The builders had excavated some clay in clods up to the size of a basketball. That’s a representative chunk sitting on top of the load (photo below). Now those clods have been hacked to pieces and worked into the rest of the soil.

I didn’t do a soil test here, but I had some granular sulfur already and I tossed it over the piles. Our soil tends to be alkaline and pawpaws prefer more acidic soil. Some Microlife, an organic fertilizer, was also tossed on. The last amendment added was the ashes of sweet dog Thorn (Read about her here). The pale yellow of the sulfur and the blue-white of her ashes made a strange visual.

When the bed was leveled out, it had a nice crown in the center. Digging holes for the 7-gallon container sized rootballs was as easy as playing in sandbox, thanks to Brenda. The soil is so well prepared back there, it feels like brown sugar on the shovel.

The trees are 10’ on center. They don’t have much presence in this photo, being leafless. The vines being trained to the fence are Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), also native.

Pawpaws must cross pollinate, so I picked several varieties of trees. For a fruit no one ever seems to have tasted, there are a lot of varieties available. Several of mine are an ungrafted ‘native’ variety. They are younger, yet taller, than the two grafted varieties I chose. The grafted “Wells’ matures later than ‘Rebecca’s Gold’ but both have large fruit. (Memo to self: Wells is on southeast side and Rebecca is on southwest) In the nursery, they expected the trees to be temperamental producers throughout their youth. We’ll see. The pawpaws that grow wild on a piece of land we own in Nacogdoches are very small but fruitful, like this one below. There is a small green pawpaw about mid-photo:

The small fig-brown flowers of the pawpaw are pollinated by flies. I recall that the speaker on fruit trees at the Master Gardener class said his trees’ productivity increased when he brought home some roadkill! I'm hoping funky old sandwich meat hung on the fence will work, instead.