Friday, September 7, 2012

Better Than They Should Be

 Drought. A condition dreaded by anyone who watches their crops or livestock wither, shrink, or die in the face of it. In South Texas, city dwellers meet drought through the daily postings of the level of the Edwards Aquifer; a figure which dictates sprinkler-based watering schedules. Experienced gardeners are intensely aware of drought’s haunting impact on their plants.
  Interest in drought tolerant plants is increasing as the specter of less reliable, and less abundant rainfall settles in. But the term ‘drought tolerant’, while thrown around a lot, is rarely clear or terribly exact. It is meant to indicate plants that survive through drought conditions, look good despite great heat or extravagant watering. But just how well a given species performs, or how little water you can use to get it through is a voodoo art at best. Identifying the parameters of drought tolerance is an arduous business. Most of us don’t want to leave our plants to their own devices long enough to let them wilt, or nearly die, to find out just how low they can go. Yet that is what it takes to know for sure.
  Instead we rely on experience, both our own and that of others, to provide clues for how often to water them to keep them fit, how long we can go between waterings, or whether they will survive our vacation plans.
  It was this entirely unscientific approach to drought tolerance that pointed out the sturdiness, and yes drought tolerance, of two plants I never would have guessed to be so tough - pittorsporum (Pittorsporum tobira) and Japanese yew (Podocarpus sp.).
  We inherited two pittosporum and one yew here at the South Texas house. Considering their size, they have been here a long time, possibly the life of the house which is just over 50 years. They form a loose row along the western side of house, sheltering bedroom and bathroom windows from the afternoon sun. During the year and half that the house was for sale they, like most of the yard, were not purposefully watered. To make matters even more dire for this trio, it was a record drought year with half of normal rainfall coupled with higher than average temperatures.
  Once we moved in, we continued to neglect them leaving them to meet the weather on their own. From the first we planned to remove them. Why waste the water? we said, we will just leave them there until we find plants we prefer.
  But plants hold surprises for me every day. Although there has more normal rainfall this calendar year, I still never water them. They just sit there all on their own. One day, I looked at them, fully leafed out, vigorous, and recalled their short  history during our time here. It was then that I spent a moment of shame for thinking of them as unworthy of a garden on the dry side. These are highly adapted, drought tolerant plants right under my nose. It is just that I didn’t consider them that way.
  In my mind, these two species fell into the category of water thirsty plants through what I call the theory of association. When I lived in Phoenix, the plant that defined this attitude was oleander (Nerium oleander). It grew everywhere but particularly in the old flood irrigated neighborhoods. Therefore, it was widely, and loudly reviled, as a terribly thirsty plant. But the truth is that it is one of most drought tolerant plants on the earth, right up there with creosote. It was identified with its neighborhood, not with its own performance. Its association with vast swaths of lawn created the illusion of a water-needy species.
  Here I was falling into the same trap with these two Asian species. Sure I can read in California publications that they tolerate heat, maybe even drought, but I learned a long time ago that what my dear friends in California west of the Coachella Valley call heat is only a faint shadow of the real thing. Both have been in horticulture a long time, well over 100 years. Both come from Asia (although there are Podocarpus species in Africa) and have been hideously overused in medians, commercial plantings and countless home gardens.
I simply dismissed them as denizens of gardens that relied on lawns and other water-thirsty plants. I was wrong, on all counts about these two.
  Opinions based on prejudice or half-truths are always flawed and these two species have provided me with a valuable lesson in not taking too much for granted where plants are concerned. So my new pledge is that the next time I come across a plant that doesn’t fit into my garden plan, is just too common for words, or appears not to have the level of drought tolerance I want, I will take the time to find out more. Then, even if I cannot love it and won’t have it in my garden, I will be casting it aside for a clear reason, not simple ignorance.
  Waiting patiently for the saw, demanding nothing, taking very little, it seems a shame to consider getting rid of such great performers. But I just can’t love them. I cannot see how they fit into the vague but emerging plans we have for the back garden. So the day will come when plans are more settled and they have to go. I can’t say that I will miss them, but they have certainly impressed me with their stamina and vigor.
  So if these two dense, evergreen shrubs fit the look and style of your garden, they will indeed need only the most minimal care and watering. They are clearly able to live on the rainfall regimen of South Texas, no matter where they come from or how long they have been associated with much more water intensive plantings.

Friday, July 27, 2012


 It is always good to see old friends. The same delight I feel in the company of the people who share part of our history, holds true for plants that have been part of our garden, present and past.
    When we moved from New Orleans to Arizona, oh so many years ago, we were astonished to find old favorites growing there. We natively considered Phoenix so different from New Orleans that we expected to see only new, as-yet unknown, plants. It wasn’t as true as we thought.
    This time around we resettled from Arizona to South Texas where we expected the opposite; here we knew we would find plenty of plants in common between the two gardens. After all, some of the most reliable ornamentals in the desert, Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), Texas rangers (Leucophyllum spp.), and red hesperaloe (Hesperaloe parviflora) just to name a few, are Texas natives. But it was an old favorite, firebush (Hamelia patens), living happily along the long garage wall that thrilled me.
    I have been enamored of this shrub since I first sold it in Phoenix many years ago. It didn’t catch on all that well there. It had the reputation of being cold intolerant which certainly was the case when it was young, in a container, or in a growing yard on the outer reaches of town. But once it grew up and settled in it was spectacular. I had one in our Arizona garden for many years until it finally died from the after effects of the wicked freeze of 2007 and a constricted space for its roots.
    Cold tolerance is a multi-faceted issue in plants. Although my Arizona firebush declined and ultimately died in the devastation of that record freeze, I find large plants all over South Texas, place that often gets much colder than Phoenix.
    The difference may be in the overall growing conditions. Here subtropical species such as firebush, grow quickly in the hot, humid summer. With regular summer rainfall or watering, they grow to be large shrubs quickly. Therefore, when a hard freeze does occur, they have the hefty root system and large stems to withstand it, and rely on their rapid summer growth to restore the plant completely.
    The line of firebush in our new garden looked atrocious when we got here. They had been living more or less on natural rainfall, which was scarce that year, and it showed. There were nine of them; some were stick dead, some were more dead than alive, and a few showed signs of recovery once we watered them thoroughly. Eventually, Gary took out all but three and began to water them regularly.
    Now, two months later, they are in full bloom with sprays of spiky orange flowers. The hummingbirds of the neighborhood are delighted.
    We consider these plants to be the first stab at the creation of a colorful, lush perennial planting in this side yard. The exposure calls for rugged, heat and drought tolerant choices and these firebush satisfy that criteria as well as look inviting from the street.
    Just like those beloved friends who know so much of your past, this delightful reminder of another time and another garden, is right on the spot to help us establish our new garden life.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bringing em home

Moving is never easy. When we coupled the upheaval, the sad goodbyes, and the complete destruction of daily life with the relocation of over 600 plants, I am reminded of that scoundrel Sisyphus’ punishment to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it fall down each time he almost reached the top.
    Shifting our plants from their tidy little shadehouse in Arizona, to their crooked but larger shadehouse in Shelby County, Texas began last October. In a fit of kindness, which we shall never be able to repay, eight extraordinary friends showed up to haul them out of the yard and load them into a massive Penske truck. The next day, we took off to our new life in a caravan; Gary drove the gargantuan yellow truck while I followed like a lamprey in the little grey car.

 The trip was remarkably uneventful, despite El Paso traffic and a small load shift. The unloading went well. The gang of plants have been in East Texas for about 8 months and we are getting ready to load them all up again, and bring them here to their new permanent home. And now you can go ahead and say it - WHY?
  Its like this; they are simply the touchstones of our lives. We miss them dreadfully in our new home. The new South Texas garden is virtually blank, which has its own rewards. Yet it feels barren, desolate, and unhealthy when we look out and there is no array of plants, potted and otherwise, to look at, worry over, make plans for.
    Frankly, we need them, they give grace and focus to our lives.  They are the string that holds the remembrances of when or where we got them, of who handed them over or pointed us toward them. They are the ticket to the memories of our life together. They are an eternal reminder of a slew of great friends and colleagues, living and dead. And now they are the unfocused beacon pointing into the wilderness of our new life.

Most of them are scheduled for long overdue planting. We have pledged that all the palms and yuccas are going in the ground. They will be much happier and planting them marks the first glimmer of a plan to shape of this garden into one that reflects our interests. These refugees will be the first installment of gardening on the dry side with a South Texas twist.
    So, despite the agony of another truck loading and unloading (just us chickens this time around), with a drive that is mercifully two days shorter than the last, we are going to do it all over again.

And we are thrilled.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Love Them 'Maters

'Sweet Treats' and 'Punta Banda'

    It happens every year. We hover around the garden for weeks watching the progress of the tomatoes. As the fruits get bigger the scrutiny intensifies. Finally, a little red shows up on one or two. By now, there is an avalanche of tomatoes requiring picking twice a day to keep up with their frantic ripening and beat out the birds and rodents.
    Tomatoes are one of the catalog of foods that the Spanish found in cultivation when they conquered Mexico, took home to curious, and probably skeptical, cooks. Although they weren’t a big hit at first, they looked too much like European nightshades that were deadly, they slowly built a following along the Mediterranean, moving north into Europe gradually.
    They weren’t a huge hit in this country at first, but Thomas Jefferson grew them in his extraordinary 18th century garden at Monticello. Then around1879 a man named Heinz bottled tomato catsup.  That gave tomatoes a big shot in the arm and we have never looked back.
    I love all their names. Lycopsericum, the genus of tomato, means wolf peach. The French call them pomme d’amour, the apple of love and the Italians named them pomodora, golden apple. In  English the  Anglicized version of the Aztec name, tomate, took hold.

   Many 19th century American varieties were pleated, but the style fell out of favor as canning and shipping increased. I have ‘Tlacalula’ a pleated variety from Mexico in the garden this year. This is a big vine with large, wrinkled, odd-shaped fruit with firm, thick flesh that makes especially suitable for sauces. 
    Desert vegetable gardeners have long recognized that small varieties, called cherries, do extremely well here. There are numerous red varieties and two especially find yellow ones, ‘SunGold’ and ‘Yellow Pear’. This year I am growing ‘Sweet Treats’ which is purple-red, prolific and delicious. This type of tomato is a pop of flavor, making them especially delightful as a garden snack.
'San Marzano'


Italian gardeners took to tomatoes pretty quickly. The climate was great for them and this fruit dried and preserved well. The two crown princes of Italian tomatoes are ‘Roma’ and ‘San Marzano’ both of which grow well here. This year I have ‘San Marzano’ which are tastier to me than ‘Roma’. ‘Roma’ is a highly reliable variety for me, while ‘San Marzano’ is coy. Some years there is abundant fruit, other years practically nothing. Who would ever know why? Tomato speak in their own language, I just try to keep up. This year the ‘San Marzano’ are abundant and I am deeply grateful.
'Punta Banda'

    My all-time favorite tomato is the Southwestern, open-pollinated variety ‘Punta Banda’. This variety produces rambling, ground hugging vines with all the fruit under the leaves, almost on the ground. The fruit is a perfect, deep red orb with firm skins. These are the last tomatoes to give out when the heat sets in and year after year give over pounds and pounds of fruit. It was preserved from oblivion by Native Seeds/SEARCH and it is now a local favorite of many market farmers.
    I have grown a great many tomato varieties over the years, starting them in my unheated germination chamber at Thanksgiving. I always wonder why we are all so seduced by them, taking endless trouble with them, offering precious space in a small garden to them. In the end I don’t think it is romance, or cultural memories, I think it is because they just taste so darn good.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Springtime for Cholla

    I am enamored of cholla with their rugged beauty, shimmering spines, and breathtaking flowers and right now they are putting on a spectacular show in the front garden.
    For decades all jointed cactus were summarily lumped into one enormous genus, Opuntia. But not long ago, botanists woke up and realized there was a lot of variation in the group and began to split things up. The result is that our friends the prickly pears, those with flat stems (pads) are still in Opuntia, but the ones with cylindrical stems now reside in the clumsily named genus, Cylindropuntia.
    We have five members of the gang in the front; the cane cholla (Cylindropuntia spinosior), what I think is buckhorn cholla (C. acanthocarpa), teddy bear cholla (C. bigelovii) and pencil cholla (C. aciculata).
The cane cholla was here when we moved in over 20 years ago. It lives near the street, gets watered when we think about it or it rains and has the most spectacular flowers of them all. These blossoms are a deep, rich purple and in a kind of bonus round it retains its bright yellow fruit in long cascades for years.

The buckhorn cholla come in two color forms, which is not at all uncommon this species. We inherited a nice orange one and soon found that our neighbor had one with a beautiful deep copper flower. So one year, we swapped and now each of us have big, robust plants that bloom extravagantly in both colors. Ours are along the driveway and make returning home at this time of year even more enticing.
    Our pencil cholla also lived here before us and when it came time to build the wall for the front patio, it presented a tricky problem. It was closer to the proposed wall but with judicious pruning, and great care, the wall got built. For many year, this cholla housed the detritus collected in the name of a home by a pack rat family. But they must have died out because they have been gone for a while now. It could be my favorite among favorites, with its slim stems, shrubby habit and odd, yellowish flowers rimmed with brown.
    There are two teddy bear cholla out front; one on the caliche ledge that separates us from our neighbor, and the other just beyond the west opening of the patio. The one on the far reaches of the front is in full bloom with its lime green flowers perched atop its chubby stems. The other is more typical of this species and never blooms but does glow daily in the rays of the setting sun. Both are gaily spreading a carpet of discarded stems along the ground at their feet to make the cholla forest I dream about as they take hold.
    I count on our cactus to mark the fading of spring to summer, marking one of the finest season of our year. And once again, those snarly but beloved cholla have no let me down.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Three Bulb Champs

One of the things you have to accept about growing bulbs is that your reward, like the saint's, will be delayed. You purchase them as something that more closely resembles a desiccated puck, or something the dog left behind. You then plant this tidy packet in fall and watch while almost nothing happens for a couple of months. This is a gardening leap of faith, not unlike planting from seed, but the rewards are rolling in right now. The bulb blooming time is in full glory, and the rewards of those long ago plantings are stupendous and three of my particular favorites are showing off mightily.

Aril bred iris are a complex group of hybrids that long ago won my heart with their astounding upright blooms in exotic blends of purple, brown, chartreuse and gold. I have never been particularly successful with the lovely bearded iris, my yard is too dry, I am too lazy, and they just don’t care much for the place. But these arilbreds love it here. Arilbreds demand a long, hot, dry summer - no trouble providing that. They thrive in most soils, including the rocky, barely amended slope, on which I have them planted. What could be easier? To top it off, even during their winter and spring growth spurt they do not have excessive water demands.
Walker Ross

I got my first arilbred years ago at an Iris Society sale and promptly lost the tag. I still don’t know its name, but it has never failed me and has gently increased over the years. Last fall I went over to Ardy Kary’s wonderful yard and bought six more varieties. All are thriving, but‘Walker Ross’ has already bloomed making me happy, happy, happy.

The Freesia laxa has just begun to open its spray of sweet, white flowers. I grew this plant for sale at the DBG and was so fond of it I convinced a bulb loving friend to take some for his place. Then he regrettably died and I inherited or adopted a lot of his plants, one of which was a small cycad. Years pass, and I finally got around to planting the cycad up at the back porch and the very next spring, a shield of bright green leaves leapt up among its fronds. I had no idea what it was or where it came from - a common occurrence here - so I waited for results. Once it flowered, I was pleased to see my old pal the Freesia was back. That plant had waited either as seed or a bulb for a long time for good growing conditions and now each spring it jumps up to remind me of my long gone friend and the admirable habit of gardeners to give things to their friends.

Homeria is a genus of bulbs from South Africa and ours came from a set Gary found at Home Depot years ago. There are two color forms, yellow and orange. We first planted them near the stairs where the Arilbreds now live. As they increased we moved them around the place and now there are three sets; yellow under the big mesquite, orange by the bauhinias, and the original group. I think of them as cheerful, bright, open, and they continue to increase and thrive whether I pay attention or not.

And that is my greatest criteria for successful bulbs in my garden. They stay put, none of that lifting and chilling and treating; they come back year after year and bloom; and they like the conditions here without undue intervention on my part.

To get the most variety in bulbs you have to go mail order and there are dozens of excellent sources both here and abroad. To see or find out more about all kinds of iris, visit Ardy Kary’s home in Arcadia ( this month to see what you are buying, or go to the Iris Show at Baker’s on Saturday, April 16.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Little Perennial Garden

    Sometimes things just work out. For years we imagined a desert perennial bed in the front of the house. At first it was supposed to be a elliptical thing and we installed irrigation lines to help it along. These first steps were modesty successful, but somehow it just never took off. The penstemon (Penstemon parryi) were fine, but everything else seemed to just take against the idea. The remainders of that initial effort are few, but exemplary: the astounding Menodora longiflora that flowers repeatedly throughout the hottest part of the summer, the rampant black dalea (Dalea frutescens) that has gone through numerous prunings and companions, and all of it is still backed up by a gorgeous pair of red fairyduster (Calliandra californica) that have been here almost as long as we have.
    For the next round, we shifted to less needy plants and the irrigation system was left to become an archaeologic relic underground. The palo blanco (Acacia willardiana) grew beautifully and so did a few agaves, particularly A. victoriae-reginae and A. titanota (that splendid one known as Felipe Otero). But all in all it was a vague mess.
    Ultimately, we built a short wall. It was an instant improvement, settling the area, making it look real and important. Someday we hoped would become a nice place to sit.
    A couple of years later Gary wrestled the remains of other projects, broken concrete and slabs of flagstone, into a charming, irregular patio that in effect created small beds in front of the fairydusters. Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) threatened to take over, but we were ruthless and only let a few stay. A friend provided abundant penstemon seed and a small firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) which we nursed through the summer. A fall a visit to the nursery brought in a couple of Angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) and a pair of blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum).  There has never been a need to plant moss verbena (Verbena pulchella) in this yard, and one bed was permitted to be be run with it. A nice blue pot was filled with a handsome Agave albomarginata and the place began to look pretty keen.
    Now it is spring, and all our long-held hope for this area are coming to pass. For such a long time it was merely the whisper of an idea and here it is, a full blown patio with color, birds especially hummers, and a sweet view of the buttes to the south. A little wine, a few friends, and a reliance on patience and the long view, and we finally have the desert perennial garden we imagined so long ago. It is the little perennial garden that could.