Friday, December 27, 2013

Attracting Wildlife to Your Garden

This morning we visited my sister-in-law at her new home and soon-to-open B&B.   The M-T Nest is going to be geared to birders and naturalists.   In under an hour, we saw cardinals, green jays, banded kiskadees, a Harris hawk and, of course, Texas' state bird, mockingbirds.   She told tales of the hunting habits of their resident barn owls.    And that was just on our drive up the drive and from inside the house.   It kinda reminded me of Chevy Chase's movie, Animal Farm.  Remember it?   They're trying to sell their New England country home and have enlisted all the townsfolk to help   When the prospective buyers approach the house, someone releases deer to scamper across the law - what a pastoral scene - well, unless you have first-hand experience with deer in your yard

Anyhow, it got me thinking about what our landscapes need to include if we want to attract wildlife to our little piece of paradise.   Some good general guidelines are the requirements to certify a yard as a Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat.   It's a Texas Parks and Wildlife program.   You can find the application here 
Basically, you need food sources, water sources, cover from preditors, and nesting sites.  I had assumed that I'd have to have an almost completely native landscape but the certification only requires that at 50% of the planting a be native.    

Sometimes you will want to get more specific.   We've planted a pecan tree to appeal to the local parrots and leave our sabal and Washingtonia palms untrimmed so the orioles a nice nesting place.  We've left a gnarly old Ashe tree with lots of trunk rot for the Eastern screech owls   We plant fennel, dill, and parsley for the caterpillars to munch on.   And we have lots of red blooming plants to appeal to the hummingbirds.     Frogs find refuge in overturned clay pots and we definitely want some frogs around.  They are voracious mosquito eaters.   

In this new year, I challenge you to plant with a purpose.  Do a little research before you go to your local garden center.   Choose items both for their beauty and for what they will draw into your garden.  Happy gardening! 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bald Cypress

I've always admired the huge cypress trees growing along the rescas in the valley and the rivers throughout the Hill Country.    Two year ago we replaced an old Ashe tree with two fairly small cypress trees.   I didn't expect them both to survive but they did.    They are planted in heavy clay and watered with grey water from our washing machine.     Ours are the native Montezuma Bald Cypress and I love these trees!  The bark has such interest and the fine needle leaves are a lovely pale green color.    It grows fairly fast and will get really large.   Plant at least 20-30 feet from any structure.   We all know how well they do along side a river or stream - but I have read that once established, a Bald Cypress can tolerate drought conditions.   Shortage of water will cause their leaves to turn brown and sometimes fall.  But once the tree receives water, it will flush fresh leaves. 

This line of bald cypress is along a busy street in Houston.     Isn't it lovely lining this sidewalk?    Cypress is commonly used in parking lot beds - and if a tree can grow in a parking lot, growing it in your yard will be a piece of cake!  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Arbor Day in November?

After a lifetime of celebrating Arbor Day in April, Texas has wised-up and set it for a month that is actually a good time to plant trees.   According to the Arbor Day Foundation, it is now celebrated the first Friday in November.   If you missed it, like I did, not to worry.  You still have plenty of time to plant that tree you've been wanting to add to your landscape.     According to Paul Johnson, with the Texas Forestry Service, there are studies that show if you plant a tree in the spring or summer and then plant the same size tree the follow fall, the second tree will outgrow the first within a few short years. 

At my home we've just removed a couple of large, old, rotting (tr)ash trees.   I've been pushing my husband to remove them for ten years now and he finally relented.   We will miss their shade next summer so we are trying to decide what to plant there.

Another thing that Paul Johnson harped on a lot was diversity  in tree populations.   After date palm decline wiped out most of the RGV's Canary Island date palms in the late '80s, I can certainly see his point.   BUT aesthetically  I think that variety is not always as appealing to the eye as a (mostly) monoculture.   For myself, I have decided on a larger number of Live Oaks.   They perform well although they grow slowly.   They live long, are a hard wood, are evergreen - what more could I want!   I plan for them to serve as the backdrop to showcase single plantings.   Right now our yard contains live oak, mesquite, ebony, anacua, elm, pecan, wild olive, huisache, Texas mountain laurels, pato de chiva, kapok, royal Poinciana, and I must be forgetting something somewhere.   Check back here for my thoughts about each of these tree varieties.  And get out there and plant a tree this fall!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Parrots and Palms

I have admired this parking lot filled with California & Mexican Fan Palms (Washingtonia filifera and W robust, respectively) for a number of years.   Most of the palms have heavy trunks and the inflorescence is super long and oh so gorgeous.  You can see the difference between the Mexican fan on the left and the California fan on the right.   Although I’ve never read this, it seems like the California fans have MUCH longer inflorescence (that’s the bloom stems).

Last night when we left a local restaurant, we heard parrot chatter.  It was just before dusk and they were flying into these palms and feasting on the seeds.  Between the poor lighting and the fact that I was using a camera phone, I couldn’t get very good photos.  But can you spot the parrot in the shot below?   It’s perched on the left side.  There were only 5 or 6 birds, but they sounded like 50 or 60.

 I think parrots are one of the coolest birds we have in the Rio Grande Valley.   In Harlingen, you can usually spot them near the public library and Pendledon Park. Brownsville has a nice number of parrots but what other RGV towns boast a parrot population?   We planted a native pecan tree in our yard to feed parrots – but now I think we should tuck in a few more washingtonias.   Oh, I’ll love to have them visit my yard!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Edible Garden

I am green with envy!   Here's the entrance to the kitchen garden at Lara Plantation outside New Orleans. 
I want my poor little edible garden to be more attractive and am looking for inspiration!   This is definitely inspiration!   Maybe I can emulate some of this - but on a smaller scale!
Love how the fruit trees line this annual bed!

And what a pretty cucumber support!   Check out the bottle edging. 

  More bottle edging around this peach tree.   This star design would fit any Texas garden!
I think this little bromeliad (?) is strictly for looks.   But mixing edible and decorative is what's happening these days.   I've tried to include a few herbs in random spots of the garden - tomatoes too, but without much fruit success. 

 Pumpkins on this short 'pillars' just for fun!

I do wonder if they grew their food in raised beds when this was a working plantation - talk about ahead of their time!   This is the only 'banana' picture I got.   See the banana plants in the back left?  The bananas were planted in small circular beds - about 6'.  More trimming around the beds but easier harvest of the bananas.

I have shyed away from separate beds in the edible garden - I think I was afraid of getting a wily-nilly look.   But I think I'll try to mix things up a little bit now. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Saving water without creating a desert landscape

Water – or the lack thereof – is the main topic of conversation lately. Given the need for water conservation, we should all be prepared to adjust how we garden. We want to focus on choosing plants that are appropriate to the site and creating a landscape that can be maintained with little supplemental watering. Don’t be fooled into thinking we are talking about barren landscapes full of cactus, agaves, and other thorny plants. Water-wise gardening can be applied to any type of garden.
Today lets go over the seven principals to water-wise gardening.
1. Planning and Design - Look at your garden’s topography, exposure and soil. Don’t fight your site but create planting zones and group your plants by their needs. For example, place drought tolerant plants in areas exposed to full sun and give more tender plants some partial shade or place them near a water source.
2. Appropriate Plant Material - Select plants that thrive in your area during low water conditions. Most, but not all, will be native plants. You may include a few plants that need to be coddled but don’t overdo it. The staff at your local nursery can help you with plant selection - but I love to drive around and see what is thriving. We all see those landscaped that look abandoned but have plants and trees that still look healthy. Give them a try
3. Soil Improvement - Great gardens start with great soil. A great soil is one that water penetrates easily but that also retains moisture. It is loose and full of organic matter. Compost and other organic matter should be worked into a planting bed prior to planting. If you have heavy clay, you may want to add expanded shale. You can find detailed information on soil improvement by googling Earth-kind.
4. Mulch - Mulch will moderate the soil temperature, hold moisture, slow erosion and suppress the weeds that compete with your plants for water and nutrients. Apply about 4 inches of mulch at planting and replenish once or twice a year. As your mulch decomposes, it feeds the soil. Our high temperatures cause organic matter to decompose quicker so we must replenish more often. Mulches can be wood chips, hay, leaves, or any organic material.
5. Appropriate Turf Areas - Most of us still want some areas of lawn in our landscapes. Where you place your lawn should be part of your initial plan. Take into consideration what you plan to use the lawn for. Most lawn grasses require more water, fertilizer and maintenance than other groundcovers.
6. Efficient Watering - If you followed the planning step, you have probably already grouped your plants by their water needs. Drip irrigation systems are often recommended for efficient watering. Time of day and length and frequency of irrigation are also considerations. .
7. Appropriate Maintenance - even a water-wise garden requires maintenance. Watering, weeding, pruning, and pest management will all factor into the quality of your landscape. Pests and disease first attack plants that are under stress. Don’t deny fertilizer or supplemental watering when needed.

Whether you're creating a new garden from scratch or updating and existing one, keep in mind these principals. Built plants will love you for it!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Water-wise Gardening

With water shortages and restrictions implemented all over the state, it's always a good time to talk about water-wise gardening.    If you've heard the term xeriscaping, it's the same concepts.   The term, "xeriscaping" made people think of desert plants with rock mulches so many gardeners didn't think it was for them.   But water-wise gardens can be lush and opulent.  Check out the design below from Cactus Jack Designs.  

All the plants used in this landscape are low water users - well, with the exception of those Boston ferns in front bed - with or without those few ferns, this planting is both lush and welcoming
There are seven principles to a successful water-wise garden
1. Plan - determine where the dry and wet areas of the project are and group the plant material accordingly.
2. Prepare the soil - add organic material to sandy soils so they will retain moisture and add expanded shale (or similar small rock) to clay soils to loosen it and add cracks and crevices for water to run into
3. Plant selection - choose plants that can survive and flourish with natural rainfall. All plants will need additional irrigation at planting and while they are becoming established in their new home. They will also need supplemental irritations during extreme heat and winds. Of course. Native plants will work but so will many that have been cultivated from other areas. You need not worry about a lack of choices.
4. Mulch - bare soil wastes water through evaporation. Mulches conserve water for the plants use. My favorite mulch is native wood chips but you can use hay, rock, seashells, or groundcover plants.
5. Turf areas - lawn grasses are heavy water users. There is a movement to remove lawns but i cant imagine my yard with no lawn. It cools the ground and gives the eye a place to rest as it moves across the landscape. Make sure your sodded areas have a purpose (playing and picnics?) and that they are maintained in a responsible manner.
6. Efficient watering - not all plants need the same amount of watering. Group plants with like irrigation needs together. Like the ferns in the top photo - they would not be a good partner succulents, most palms, or native south Texas plants.
7. Appropriate maintenance - all gardens need care from time to time - pruning, dead-heading, mulching, watering - an hour here and there and you'll have paradise in your own backyard.