During the past week and through the weekend, I considered changing the name of this blog to “Garden Warrior”. I plot and plan. I work under dangerous conditions. I am frequently under assault. At times, I might drop everything and run for cover. I hope that I’m working towards the greater good.
And last week, I got taken by surprise, a flat bad thing in battle. I don’t know precisely how it even happened, did not see the enemy attack. Clearly, poison ivy is sneakier than one might anticipate. On the bright side, I don’t seem to be highly sensitive to it, just enough to be extremely uncomfortable for the first several days.
Yep, Garden Warrior totally fits. But I digress.
Let’s talk azaleas.
Our babies seem to be faring well so far. There was a bit of a hard time with availability close to home. Here in Texas, high summer is not the time to transplant them. But when I did find a nearby nursery with azaleas in stock, I found they had a lot. So very many, all different kinds, all mixed together, all baking in the sun. And they were priced to go.
At the time (just a few weeks ago), I knew very little about azaleas, which was ridiculous considering how much information there is out there. I had not done my research. What can I say? I was going on emotion. But I had my phone to look stuff up and I had a very basic idea of what I wanted: evergreen, extended bloom-time, and compact. Our garden space is small and some azalea varieties grow taller than me. That simply wouldn’t work.
And so it began. Several hours later – I'm not exaggerating – it took me hours -- I was the proud owner of 30 azaleas. The next day, after only a few additional hours, I was the owner of ten more. I think I will hold on telling you about the varieties I ended up with. The stories of the breeders are just too interesting to gloss over. So it looks like there will be one or two more azalea posts -- until bloom time, that is!
But I would like to mention, because of the lovely story and website, that in the U.S., azaleas were first planted outdoors at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, by plantation owner Reverend John Grimké Drayton. If I tell you the story and do not send you to the website, I'm doing you no favor. Suffice to say that it’s a romantic story. Gardens and romance – a perfect combo for yours truly. I’ve never been to Magnolia Plantation, but it’s now on my list.
Our front garden – I like to think of it as our Welcoming Garden (check out Gorden Hayward’s book The Welcoming Garden) – is surely feeling proud of itself. This gardener is certainly smiling. All but two of our new azaleas have been planted and they look right at home.
With the exception of a few Encores, we opted for one-gallon plants. Azaleas don’t require deep holes. In fact, it's recommended that the root ball be an inch or two above the soil. But it would have been excruciating to dig holes big enough for larger shrubs. Even with the one gallons, the prep and planting weren’t easy. The little plants were terribly rootbound. I had to slash and fluff most of the forty root balls. It was harder than I expected and, feeling rather sorry for the plants, I grimaced most of the time I was working on them. I’m glad to report that so far none seem to have been damaged by the experience.
Then we had the oak tree roots to contend with. My husband brought out his reciprocating saw for some of the more stubborn ones. And the soil was very compacted in places.
Azaleas require or, at the very least, prefer light, acidic soil. The soil type most common in our area is gumbo, which is a heavy clay loam. The soil in our front yard is an unfriendly mix of builder’s sand, builder’s junk – including, to my shock, chunks of concrete – and gumbo.
In areas where there were less roots, I cleared out concrete, bottle caps, and other oddities, and broke up some clay. I’d purchased some good compost and one bag of topsoil mixed with peat moss to amend the sorry mess. I always feel a little guilty buying peat moss and don't do it often, but that’s another subject altogether. Anyway, one by one, the little plants were set in their new homes and watered thoroughly. Since then, I’ve been adding coffee grounds to each bush in turn, just to be on the safe side.
We do have the right light requirements. Azaleas like dappled shade and with the four oak trees in such a small area, that’s a done deal.
According to the Azalea Society of America, azaleas have been hybridized for hundreds of years and there are over 10,000 cultivars. Those are just the named ones. That’s a bit – just a tiny bit – too wide a scope for this little blog. It took quite a lot of reading just for me to untangle a drop of the vast amount of information available.
Most evergreen azaleas are native to Japan, while our native North American species are all deciduous. I’m certainly pro-native, but considering the reason I wanted the azaleas – to cover the bare patches – of course I wanted evergreens. Moreover, the more the plants bloom, the better. With any luck, the varieties I chose, out of the selection immediately available to me, should bloom spring and fall. And yes, they absolutely had to be immediately available due to the rampage situation.
I’ll share a little more, and more specifically, of my newfound knowledge in another post. For now, following is the link for the Azalea Society of America. It’s a large and fabulous website: www.azaleas.org/
I’ve finally reached an amazing conclusion. If I’m going to garden through the long, hot summer, I should do so in early morning whenever possible.
Not exactly innovative, you say? Intelligent gardeners have been doing that forever, you snicker? Yes, well, there are two common warnings about being outdoors in summer, especially a southeast Texas summer. Avoid being out in the sun in the middle of the day and beware that disease-carrying mosquitoes are worse at dawn and dusk. I can expand on that. Where I live, it’s extremely damp and buggy until mid-morning. After that, it’s blazing hot. So, which will it be, mosquito bites or extreme heat? How about both? Let's toss in ninety percent humidity, free of charge, with either. I usually pass. But this year, as I mentioned in my last post, I’m on a rampage. My bare patch rampage.
But I’m taking a little azalea break today. Trust me, it’s needed.
I worked in the garden a lot this past weekend. At one point, in the heat of the day, I realized that not only was I covered in sweat and dirt, but also insect repellant. I hate having bug spray all over me. It’s one of the reasons for my boycott. But this year I’m out there. Of necessity, I cover myself with insect repellant. I spray it on in the middle of the day as needed. In this particular garden of ours, at this time of year, we need insect repellant almost any time we’re out there.
Please bear with me while I review. In the middle of the day, it’s very hot and moderately buggy. In early morning, it’s moderately hot and very buggy. But if the repellant takes care of the bugs, then it’s less hot AND less buggy. Moreover, the garden will have been tended before the work day even begins. It's a win-win.
Congratulations to all of you for knowing that since forever. For me, it’s a wonderful revelation. Let me enjoy it, insect repellant and all. After all, now I have more time in my garden.
Could we get more suburban? I hope not. But really, I can't complain about such a friendly view, can I? Then again, looks can be deceiving. What do you think we hear when we open our front door? In summer, more than anything else, it’s usually the persistent hum of cicadas. For some reason, it sounds like the wild west to me. It doesn’t feel like it, though. No, it feels like a rainforest – hot, humid, and buggy.
It’s the time of year when I usually begin my boycott. I stop working outside from mid-July through mid-September. It’s simply too uncomfortable to spend long hours in the garden. This year, however, I’m on a rampage.
Once upon a time, our family lived on four acres in a restricted, rural, beautiful subdivision. The flower gardens were close to the house, which was in the center of the property. But the front yard was view enough. It was a pecan grove. To look positively lovely, all it required was mowing and edging.
But houses were few and far between and we rarely saw anyone.
Then, a few years ago, we moved to our small lot on a golf course. And wouldn’t you know, practically a zillion people pass by every day - front and back. Golfers could hardly care less, of course. I'm more worried about the front. People driving in and out of our neighborhood, kids walking to and from the school bus, people out for a stroll, a run, walking their dogs. Even the mail carrier comments on our garden. And our neighbors are a stone’s throw away.
So many people. They deserve a nice view when they pass our house. Our front garden will look like a gardener tends it. It will bring joy. Butterflies will flutter and birds will chirp.
One fine day. . .
The thing is, our house is north facing and there are four – FOUR – live oaks in the tiny front yard. It’s not large enough to properly support even one and the ground shows it. We have lots of shade, lots of roots, and more bare soil than grass. I want more flowers in our flower beds, it's true, but those bare patches are driving -- have driven -- me nuts. They are the reason I've delayed my summer boycott.
I was complaining about the problem to a friend from garden club – our wonderful Sugar Land Garden Club – and she told me that she used to have the same problem. She told me that she planted azaleas in all of her bare patches and it turned out beautifully. I trust her.
I'm the obsessive sort, so I've been learning a lot about azaleas. I'd share with you now, but I still have several flowering, evergreen shrubs to plant. I'll see you again soon!
Margaret Roach’s new edition of her classic book A Way to Garden is out and it makes for a wonderful reading experience. Both the writing and photos are beautiful.
Ms. Roach – really, she’s so approachable from her podcast to her blog to her book that I think of her as Margaret – gardens in upstate New York. Can gardeners from other regions, such as Texas or California, benefit from her experience? Yes, we can, with pleasure. Newbie gardeners might learn more from the book than seasoned ones, but there are great tips and reminders for everyone.
Chapters are broken into two-month sections. The first chapter, for example, is called Conception, January & February. Some of her garden photos in this section have snow, which some of us rarely or never see. But her topics in this chapter range from seed catalogs to garden design to taxonomy (she calls it Taxonomy Lite) to botanical Latin to seed viability and much, much more. That’s only one chapter.
She’s just so passionate about gardening.
For more information, so much great information, check out Margaret’s website: https://awaytogarden.com/
You are as welcome as the flowers in May. – Charles Macklin, 1825
It’s such a lovely time of year. The weather is mild, the bugs aren’t yet awful, and the weeds are still small. It’s almost possible to stay ahead of things.
In our garden, cool and warm season plants are growing side by side. They’ll probably continue to do so for another month. For now, we can enjoy the combination of roses, bulbs, and spring annuals at their best as summer perennials begin to awaken.
My family enjoys this cool-season herb. I realize that not everyone likes it, but it’s an herb I keep on hand year-round and one for which I sow seeds every fall. Coriander is a decent source of fiber, vitamins A and C, and a great source of vitamin K. More to the point, it adds a fresh, sort of citrusy touch to food, cooked or uncooked.
I could go on and on about benefits, recipes, the debate over whether some people are genetically predisposed to disliking it. When I read in one article that whole countries of people aren’t used to it and, hence, dislike it, while other countries absolutely can’t imagine eating without it, I looked up its name in different languages.
Latin – coriandum sativum
Arabic – kizbra/kazbarah/so many other translations
Chinese – xiăng căi
English – coriander
French – coriandre
German – koriander
Greek – kozbara
Portuguese – coentro
Spanish – cilantro
I saved my favorite for last, which removes it from alphabetical order. Call me childish – go ahead! But I think it’s a grand-sounding word.
Italian – get ready -- Coriandolo!
What's not to love? I think I’ll throw it into conversations for the fun of it and let people wonder…
Say it with me: orach. How did you say it? No matter what, I encourage you to go with it. I’ve heard it pronounced so many different ways that I’ve pretty much decided that no one really knows for sure.
But isn’t it pretty?
Atriplex hortensis is its Latin name. Orach, also spelled orache, also known as mountain spinach and saltbush, is a wild spinach native to the Mediterranean. It’s a cool season plant, tending to bolt in warmer weather. Here in the Houston area, we’ve had a mostly mild winter with a few nights below freezing, but temps generally in the 50’s and 60’s. Our orach has seemed happy throughout.
We don’t have a lot, yet. It was an experiment, but I might plant some more. Recently, we’ve started adding it to salads. It has a very mild, delicate flavor, vaguely like spinach, and entirely pleasant. It looks great in a salad and, best of all, it’s good for us. Like other leafy greens, it’s high in Vitamin K, Vitamin C, iron, magnesium, zinc, and several other minerals. It’s also a good source of tryptophan and dietary fiber.
We tossed some seeds into the bed, raked over them lightly, and watered. That's it. Orach is an ancient plant that grows in the wild. It doesn't require lots of attention.
In case you’re interested, we purchased our seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Company. https://www.rareseeds.com/
Our poor garden is confused. It thinks it’s spring. Or perhaps it has simply decided to live each day to its fullest, without worrying about the future.
In southeast Texas, winter is pretty much a wonderful time to garden. Today, I spent a few hours weeding. I crawled in and out of flower beds without worrying overmuch about poison ivy, mosquitos, fire ants, or heatstroke. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, and the temperature was in the mid-60’s. It was the first decent amount of time I’d spent out there since early December and it felt great.
At first, I was shocked by the size and abundance of dandelions. They usually wait until spring to really take off. While it’s true that it’s been a fairly mild winter so far, it’s still early January. We’re talking lots of dandelions. I don’t mind telling you that for a few moments I felt a little nonplussed, but the fragrance of the garden soon soothed my irritation. A brush with rosemary here, juniper there, then roses, alyssum, stock, thyme. . . It was wonderful. And then I saw them, a true sign of spring. But it’s too soon, isn’t it?
Snowflakes! Not the kind that fall from the sky, but those that break up through the soil. Leucojum Aestivum “Gravetye Giant” has proven to be wonderfully dependable and hardy. I have the bulbs growing thickly by now and intend to plant more. I only hope that they’ll keep blooming for a while.
What’s that saying? Hope springs eternal? Or is it spring hopes eternal? Does spring give us hope or does hope give us spring? Let us take a clue from the snowflakes.
Can you see it, the monster poised to munch my Scorpion pepper plant to nothing? It is manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm. I can never decide if hornworms look scary or cute. This one didn’t seem so bad. We didn’t even toss it on its pointy little horn. Joseph, my husband, simply cut the branch and moved it to another part of the garden. Now, however, I’m on the lookout not only for the same caterpillar but others as well.
There is also a tomato hornworm, manduca quinquematulaca, which resembles it closely and also defoliates plants of the nightshade family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants) of vegetables.
Both turn into large moths. I do like and enjoy the moths these fat green blobs turn into. They become Sphinx moths, also known as hawk or hummingbird moths. I’ve seen these moths in most of my gardens over the years. They look very much like hummingbirds, hovering over nectar plants, and they are good pollinators. But do I like them enough to willingly allow the caterpillars to defoliate what’s left of my summer garden? Probably not, but life in the garden is wonderfully varied and interesting.
I plot and I plan. I work under dangerous conditions. I am frequently under assault. At times, I might drop everything and run for cover. I strive to work towards the greater good.
Gardening in southeast Texas can be brutal. Heat, humidity, and potentially disease-carrying mosquitoes are problems for more than half the year and a dangerous combination in summer. That’s to say nothing of fire ants and other biting, stinging insects. Snakes, too, although they only make a rare appearance in my little garden. Poison ivy and oak are common and birds sow both generously.
Despite some uncomfortable conditions, I feel very protective of the wild in my garden. It’s important to know friend from foe, for example, venomous from nonvenomous snakes. Even then, it’s often not necessary to engage. As for the bugs, it is not fine with us to hurt the good with the bad. Pesticides are banned. So are herbicides. Our beds, whether food or ornamental, are organic. And while our garden isn’t entirely native, we do have plenty of native plants that please the local wildlife as well as ourselves.
While every garden is different, they all offer challenges, pleasures, time with nature. Much like people, they have their good days and bad days, high seasons and low; and they can all be fun and beautiful if you love them enough.