Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Today is the first day of Spring and I am finally going to update this blog; hopefully regularly from now on. I think I tend to treat it more like a college term paper than the casual journal it should be. So here goes. I just want to throw some topics out there and maybe revisit them later.

Here is my garden as it looks today. I have some red and white onions planted from sets in mid-February. They were trampled twice before I realized that the dog could easily open the gate and instituted additional bungee-based security measures. Before that I wrongly accused the family of leaving it open. In the rear left of the picture is a whole bunch of cilantro that is starting to bolt. I am going to let it flower and reseed because I love cilantro. Also, the flowers themselves are delicious and look super-fancy and classy if you sprinkle them on some, say, fresh cantaloupe. The flowers taste somewhere between cilantro and coriander. I don't know how to describe tastes. Peppery and tangy? Cilantro-ish?

Speaking of fancy and classy, I've got some asparagus planted in the center. I have never grown it before, but I know it takes a while to establish. Mine are from two 4inch pots I planted a year ago. I just let it grow really tall and fall over. More spears keep coming up and I want that whole 6x4ish planter full of the stuff, so I better look up how to make it grow best. Maximum fancy.

Less fancy is the trash can full of red potato also planted mid-February. I grew potatoes last year, but didn't get much at all. It was like Sad Christmas when I dumped the can and didn't find many potatoes. A dude from Callahan's said maybe I watered them too much, so we'll see.

Also in the garden is some Salvia greggii, Eupatorium havanense (Fragrant Mistflower), Artemesia 'Powis Castle,' Malvaviscus arboreus (Turk's Cap), and some other junk like Smilax bona-nox (Saw Greenbriar.) I can't really get rid of the briar, so I just cut it back and eat the tips, which are actually pretty good. The Turk's Cap was in place before the garden expanded so I just grandfathered it in to the garden. Once it was on the drip, it went crazy and I see hummingbirds pretty much every day out there when it is blooming. Nothing attracts hummingbirds like M. arboreous on drip, in my admittedly limited experience. The Mistflowers were annexed in the last garden expansion and I am not sure if I want to move them. They are the best butterfly plant I know and they get swarmed when in bloom. At a previous house where I had a garden I had a Artemesia absinthium x arboreum 'Powis Castle' that was always covered in ladybugs, so I planted one by the garden when we got this house and I have never seen a ladybug on it. But I really love the leaf-shape and fragrance of this guy so that's fine.

This year I plan to devote about 30 or so square feet a piece to tomatoes and peppers. Last year was so hot and dry that I didn't get peppers until the heat started to taper off. I kept the plants happy all summer on drip and had a pretty strong crop eventually. Mariachi was the hybrid pepper that I got a ton of fruit from, as well as jalapeƱos and serranos. Hybrid tomatoes that did well for me were Sweet Millions, Ping Pong Pink, and Better Boy. Really though, I think I am more of an heirloom-type guy than a hybrid guy, so we'll see what I plant this year. I always have better luck with smaller, cherry types.

I also plan to grow a whole lot of cucumbers this year. Those things are so productive and delicious and easy to grow - I love them. They really take the brutal heat. I am going to devote a lot of space to Straight 8's, Armenians, and a pickling variety called Wisconsin something or other.

Last year I had a lot of Kentucky Wonder beans that didn't produce at all in the heat, however, the few Yardlong Beans I planted cranked out beans all summer. Maybe it's too dry here for the classic Phaseolus garden-beans, so I am switching over to Vigna, the genus of black-eyed peas etc that are more common in hot parts of the world.

Last year I grew a bunch of Luffa gourd, and I plan to expand to bottle gourds as well this year. I read something on Wikipedia or somewhere that bottle gourd was the only cultivated plant that the New and Old Worlds both shared prior to arrival of Europeans in the Americas. It was thought that the gourds may have floated over the Atlantic, but now seems like it was brought over with the earliest settlers to the Americas when they crossed the Bering Straight. It is among the very first domesticated plants. It makes sense when you think about it: hunter-gatherers could find food wherever they went, but without a way to carry water they couldn't range further than a day's travel from fresh water. That kind of stuff fascinates me.

This is my front yard today. We are having a plant sale at my son's elementary school next Saturday March 24th. This is our first plant sale, so we are going to start small with about six flats of veggies and a few dozen gallons and 5-gallons. Pictured here are Anacacho Orchid Tree (Bahunia), Coral Honey Suckle (Lonicera), Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias), Damianita (Crisanctina mexicana), Mexican Feathergrass, Copper Canyon Daisy (Tagetes lemonii), Weeping Muhly (Muhlenbergia), African Bulbine, Blackfoot Daisy, Texas Lantana (Lantana horrida), Cenizo, Texas Mountain Laurel (Sephora secundiflora), Society Garlic and Bicolor Iris. All those are awesome plants, all well-behaved, most native. All the money is for the PTA.

Here are some cedar posts that I am going to use to make raised veggie bed, Lincoln-log style and pinned in place with rebar. In Texas, we like to call all Junipers "Cedar." It's a pretty odd thing. That's why scientific nomenclature is best. These are Juniperus, not Cedrus or whatever. I will use the binomials if I know them, but I can't be held responsible for spelling as I can't look all these up or remember them perfectly. If I think I know, I will guess. If I only know the genus I will just put that and common only if that's all I know.

Here's a Dayflower that grows wild in my yard. I don't know it's real name, but I know it's native and really cool. It is only open in the morning and folds back up at some point and the petals curl in on themselves. I like flowers that open and close. There is a Rock Rose (Pavonia lasiopetala) right beside it that behaves similarly. Maybe I will make that the theme over there and put in some Datura and Morning Glorys etc.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Plants that Rule: White Mistflower

It has been said before, but White Mistflower rules. It the best plant for attracting swarms of butterflies and other insects. It blooms around the first of November for about 3 or 4 weeks. I swear that mine bloom in the spring as well, but no one believes me. I will pay more attention next spring.
This plant has a slew of names. I learned it as White Mistflower and Eupatorium havanense. Blue Mistflower was called E. greggii. It was a simpler time. Now both have been booted from Eupatorium and into their own genera, Ageratina and Conoclinium respectively. White Mistflower also answers to Shrubby Boneset, Havana Snakeroot, thoroughwort, and probably something else that I can't remember. It's closely related to the plant that causes "milk sickness," A. altissima, a.k.a. White Snakeroot or Tall Boneset. It killed Abe Lincoln's mom. So, don't feed it to your cows and then eat them or drink their milk. You've been warned.

The degree to which White Mistflower attracts insects can't be overstated. They swarm around it like electrons on a nucleus, or rebel ships around the Death Star. All kinds of butterflies, moths, bees, and flies. I've even seen mosquitos feeding on the nectar.
White Mistflower is also rugged. These two plants were originally planted in full sun from a couple of four-inch pots from the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center's Native Plant Sale. I decided one winter that I wanted them elsewhere and dug them up and moved them to a part-shade location. There wasn't much of a rootball and I didn't think they would come back but they did. I didn't really water them much during this year's brutal summer but they didn't care. They just waited until it finally rained and then exploded into bloom.
Oh, and, as you might expect, it smells great. Rich, perfumey, and sweet.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fall Plant Sale at the Wildflower Center is upon us!

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center's Fall Plant Sale and Gardening Festival is this weekend. They will have around 300 species of native plants for sale, so it's your twice a year opportunity to buy plants that you can't get commercially. There is a species list here, and it is truly impressive (316 species, in fact). There are all kinds of native plants I've never heard of, and tons of pictures and descriptions. I've explored this list for an hour just to have some idea of what to expect.

Take this opportunity to become a Wildflower Center member. Admission is free to members, and the best value is to get a buddy to go in on a dual membership at $20 each. That'll get you into the Wildflower Center for free the whole year, so if you plan to visit twice more it saves money. Also, members get 10% off, so you can figure that into the equation. If you go to both the Fall and Spring Sales, you need only spend $35 at each to recoup the cost of membership, considering the $7 admission and member discount. Plus, you get to go to the preview sale, starting at 1pm Friday, and get to hobnob with other members and get first crack at the plants. And, of course, it's great to support such a fine Austin institution.

I plant to get some Snow-on-the-Mountain, Harvard's Agave and who knows what else. See you there!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Welcome to Garden Gnome's Texas Gardening Blog.

My name is Jeff Maxwell and I started Garden Gnome Landscaping in Austin, Texas in the spring 2009, specializing in the design and installation of native landscapes.

Here is my back-story.

I have always been interested in science, particularly biology, but was never much of a student so decided to pursue the goal of 98% completion of a B.A. in English from UT Austin with a 2.5 GPA over the course of a decade or so. That goal achieved, I moved on to other aspirations involving retail jobs and lowly computer tech support positions. Once I was satisfied in those regards, I realized that I had in the meantime become an amateur naturalist and botany hobbyist and determined that this would be my contribution to history: gardening and yammering about it on the Internet.

I have, for most summers of my adult life, had a vegetable garden that was planted with great intentions but with no real knowledge of horticulture and flawed technique, resulting in not a bunch of food. I have learned to vegetable garden by process of elimination. And by reading.

Sometime in the late 1990's, I was going camping (I think at Guadalupe River State Park) and decide that I should know the names of the trees, so I purchased The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees Eastern Region. I was able to identify and learn the names of the major trees, like elms and oaks and junipers and the like. This was a lot of fun and made me feel smart.

After this, I noticed plants and appreciated them more and tried to remember their names. I took a great class at UT around 2003 called BIO 406D: Native Plants. It's for non-science majors and focused on the identification of plants and their morphologies and taxonomy. We went on field trips to preserves and parks and really gained an appreciation for the native flora. We learned about 180 plants, their scientific names, jargon for describing them- it was great.

So, I bought some other books and read them and now I feel like I know quite a bit about plants and gardening but there is always someone who knows much more.

These are the canonical books for gardening in Central Texas, or at least the ones I have read, and can recommend:

Texas Gardening the Natural Way: The Complete Handbook by Howard Garrett . This book is comprehensive, detailing what to do and, often overlooked, what not to do in organic gardening. There is an extensive listing of plants, as well as lots of pictures, illustrations, and diagrams. You can open this book to a random page and learn something. I also like that he has his own opinions. I chuckled aloud the first time I read his section of "Worst Trees for Texas" - under Hackberry, his description: "is just a big weed."

Native Texas Plants: Landscaping Region by Region by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski is the most complete, most indispensable guide to native plants. There are about 400 plants described in detail and with a picture of each, as well as well-developed landscape plans for specific botanical regions. That's what great about this book. It divides native plants into regions to describe how to use them best. Now I garden from a Blackland Prairie perspective and everything makes a little more sense.

How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest by Jill Nokes is great for anyone who likes to grow plants on the cheap from seed or cuttings, wants plants that are unavailable commercially, or has fantasized about owning a wholesale nursery propagating native plants. I am all three. So if you want to know whether to scarify or stratify seed, or how much rooting hormone to use for your semi-hardwood cuttings, well, you need this book. There is also lots of information on the plants themselves, so it's a very informative read. It's a mostly-words type of book but they did stick in some pretty plates in the middle.

I bought two books for the native plants class I took, Native and Naturalized Woody Plants of Austin and the Texas Hill Country by Brother Daniel Lynch,C.S.C, and Vascular Plant Families, by James Payne Smith, Jr. These are academic books, so they are really expensive new but are cheap used.

Native and Naturalized Woody Plants of Austin and the Texas Hill Country is a carefully illustrated (black and white) guide to trees and shrubs in our area. It's handy and concise, with nice, terse scientific descriptions of local woody flora.

Vascular Plant Families is a text for the true wannabe plant nerd. The first 70 pages are just definitions. My copy was used and pretty much everything was highlighted for the first thirty pages. I figure the previous owner either dropped the class or ran out of highlighter at this point. There are these crazy floral formulas that look like algebra, but are shorthand descriptions of flower descriptions. It helps you learn to recognize the family of a plant you've never seen and it is chock full of wonderful jargon.

So, those are the books I know and like. Anything I say or write can be attributed to them, Central Texas Gardener on KLRU, some plant person, speculation, or is an outright lie.

I plan to update this blog weekly or whenever the fancy strikes. Future topics will include landscapes I've installed, my veggie garden, killing invasives, vermicompost, and plenty of advice and opinion on native plants.