fall vegetable garden
2006-11-27. Vegetable garden before the ice storm.

November 30th, 2006
Zanthan Gardens: Five Years and Still Blogging

On November 30, 2001 I sent an email to my friends and family announcing that I had moved, virtually. AJM had heard about Movable Type and since I spend a huge amount of time documenting various aspects of my life he thought I might be interested into integrating this then new technology into my existing gardening site.

The birth of Zanthan Gardens officially took place on September 13, 2001 with a plant profile on my signature plant oxblood lilies. I’ve always been one of those people who liked to read every bit information that I can on a topic and then write my own version. Answering feedback I received from a friend, I outlined my vision for the site.

I am finding that the most difficult thing to do is to get the correct tone and keep it. I want it to be personal, specific to my experiences because I like to read other garden writers personal experiences with each plant. I know that I cannot provide complete information about all plants, or even all plants that grow here. So I decided that the best thing to do is to write about plants I actually grow (or books I’ve actually read or nurseries from which I actually buy plants and bulbs).

I am trying to provide the information that I look for most often. Bloom time is important to me, too, and it is what made me start my garden diary. You simply cannot rely on any garden book to “coordinate” bloom time because it is so affected by region, and microclimate, and weather conditions that vary from year to year.

Identifying plants I have and plants I should have is also important to me. Since I live in an old yard, I spent (spend) a lot of time trying to identify various plants. In fact, my first two garden books were actually native plant books. I also find books on weeds to be very useful. Therefore, I want to provide photos and cross-reference the descriptions by other writers.

As you can tell, it is a very beta site right now. Providing the content is secondary to my designing and creating a site. Although I did some web site design and maintenance for ETI, I want to practice doing more complicated things.

I hope, over the weekend, to get the whole bloom calendar up. I also took quite a few photos this morning…so there will be some more plant profiles. I do best with deadlines. I’ll let you know…hmmm. Seems to me that another thing I could set up would be a mailing list.

Reading this again five years later, I’m surprised how clear my vision was at the beginning and how I’ve managed to stay true to it. The original pages, Plant Profiles and In Bloom Calendar of the site were for the most part static. I wrote all the html and css by hand using the text editor BBEdit. When AJM told me about Movable Type, I thought I could use weblog technology to log updates to the other pages. Very soon, I started using them to publish a week-by-week public summary of my personal gardening diary. The blog portion remains only one part of the entire Zanthan Gardens site. I wonder how many people are aware of that? Even I sometimes forget. I have a backlog of Plant Profiles to write and I always mean to update the In Bloom Calendars…but it’s just easier to mouth off on the blog.

The first years of garden blogging were lonely. Fortunately, most of my energy was going into my blog about living in Japan and the ex-pat community there were very early adopters of blogging. I had joined the Texas Gardening webring and met Austin gardener Val of Larvalbug. Other than that I received little feedback. It was almost eight months before I received my first comment from a stranger who found me via a Google search. Two of my earliest finds (or maybe they found me) were fellow Texas gardener, Bill of Prairie Point and sister extreme climate gardener, Kathy Purdy of Cold Climate Gardening.

This last year has seen an explosion in garden blogs. I think the credit goes to Blogger, which makes them easy to set up, and RSS, which makes them easy to track and read. In January, Annie in Austin read about Zanthan Gardens in our local paper and wrote to me about her garden web page Divas of the Dirt. We met at Smith & Hawkins, exchanged some plants and had a great talk. I mentioned to Annie how much we bloggers liked comments, and well, the rest is history. (Annie, do NOT stifle your comments because I said that. You know how I love following you around the blogosphere.) In February, Pam Penick, one of the first people to comment on this blog way back in 2003, wrote to me that she was starting her own blog, Digging. Each time I see an update, I can hardly wait to click over and check out her latest set of gorgeous photos. By June, Annie decided that the water was fine and jumped right into blogging at The Transplantable Rose. This year everything I’d dreamed of when I first began blogging has come true finally. After starting small, garden blogging has flowered and borne fruit. I get to compare notes and photos with other gardeners nearby. What a lot of fun we’ve had meeting each other and sharing our gardens. (Does any town have more active garden bloggers than Austin, TX?) Unexpected bonus: I’m in contact with gardeners all over the world.

A couple of months ago Kathy Purdy was kind enough to include me in her great series on Garden Blog Pioneers. My vanity has made me curious…Do you know of any garden blog started before November 30, 2001? that’s still running? Pamela Shorey mentions that Outside in the Garden was named blog of the day four days earlier. However, the earliest archive I can find is December 12, 2001.

Gardening with Heirloom Seeds: Tried-and-True Flowers, Fruits & Vegetables for a New Generation.
Lynn Coulter.
The University of North Carolina Press. 2006.
ISBN 978-0-8078-3011-6

November 28th, 2006
Gardening With Heirloom Seeds

book coverOne of the joys of leafing through seed catalogs is reading and comparing the various descriptions and imagining what it would be like to grow (and in the case of vegetables) taste the offerings. Two of my favorite catalogs are Marilyn Barlow’s Select Seeds and Renee Shepherd’s Renee’s Garden Seeds. Both the catalogs and the seed packets of these firms are filled with descriptions and histories of old-fashioned seeds (mostly open-pollinated so that you can save them from year to year) in addition to extensive growing instructions…practically a blog entry on a packet.

Lynn Coulter’s Gardening With Heirloom Seeds expands on these catalogs, turning them into an attractive reference book with glossy photos on every page, many by David Cavagnaro. Unfortunately, many of the other photos are of Renee Gardens seed packets which give the book a strangely mercantile look. The information from nineteenth century seed catalogs is fascinating. I must remember to explain to AJM that I’m keeping all these old seed catalogs around to aid future historians.

For those of you who do not want to spend hours pouring over and comparing catalogs, Gardening with Heirloom Seeds provides a very convenient summary. The fifty plants are arranged by season and then alphabetically by common name, flower and vegetables mixed together indiscriminately just as they might be in your cottage garden.

Each entry begins with a history of the plant, then follows with short descriptions of several varieties, and ends with growing tips. I found the growing tips especially useful although they are somewhat biased toward gardeners in the northern US. Particularly the initial grouping of plants into a spring, summer, or fall gardens is confusing to us southern gardeners. Nigella is grouped in the summer garden but in Austin it sprouts in the fall with the larkspur and blooms at the same time in late spring. Pansies, snapdragons, and violas are the backbone of Austin’s winter flower gardens. In reading the essay on the winter garden Lynn Coulter’s observes, “Most gardeners will admit that they are not altogether sorry to see the end of the growing season.” my mind immediately jumps to Elizabeth Lawrence’s words in A Southern Garden.

“The garden year has no beginning and no end. There is not a time when everything is in bloom at once, nor is there a time when the box is wrapped in burlap and the borders covered in pine boughs. There is not time for the gardener to take a rest before beginning again. To follow the tradition of bloom in three seasons only is to miss the full meaning of gardening in a part of the world where at all times of the year there are days when it is good to be out of doors, when there is work to be done in the garden, and when there is some plant in perfection of flower or fruit.”

However, even for plants I’ve grown for years, I learned interesting tidbits from Lynn Coulter–that cosmos bloom best after the summer equinox and that larkspur seeds (which I collect every year) quickly lose viability after a year. There is a nice bibliography as well as a list of sources for heirloom seeds.

If you haven’t grown many plants from seed or if you are new to cottage gardening and heirloom flowers and vegetables, this book is a great introduction. As for me, it is an interesting jumping off point for looking back over my own notes and other reference books. The outside margins of the book are designed with a space for notes. If I owned this book, I’d certainly be scrawling points of agreement and disagreement. I’d even get out the yellow highlighter I use on my seed catalogs. I love comparing notes with other gardeners. Don’t you?

Other Sources
I frequently buy seed from Botanical Interests because I’m always tempted by the display near the checkout counter at Central Market. They also have great seed packets.

Month-By-Month Gardening in Texas.
Dale Groom and Dan Gill.
Cool Springs Press. 2000

November 22nd, 2006
Month-By-Month Gardening in Texas

As the Govenor’s office of Economic Development and Tourism proclaims, “Texas, It’s Like a Whole Other Country®”. To Texas gardeners (despite the rest of the nation’s image of us as cactus and cowboys) Texas is a bunch of different countries–or at least climate regions. There’s the hot and humid Gulf coast of Houston and Corpus Christi. The piney woods in the east. The blackland prairie and hill country of central Texas. The high plains of the north. And the lush Rio Grande valley in the south. Oh, yeah. And somewhere way out in west Texas beyond the Pecos River is the desert southwest and mountains. So writing a book that covers gardening in Texas is quite the challenge.

Maybe because I garden deep in the heart of Texas where all the extremes average out, I found Month-By-Month Gardening in Texas to be pretty durn accurate. (Apparently there’s a redesigned 2005 edition but I’m reviewing th. 2000 edition which I found in the library.)

The book is divided alphabetically by type of plants (annuals, bulbs, houseplants, lawns, perennials, roses, shrubs, trees, vegetables, and vines) and then again by month. The advantage to this arrangement is that you can zero in on a specific type of plant you’re growing (for example, roses) see what you have to do each month of the year. It also allows some general information about each type of plant to be summarized at the beginning of the chapter.

The disadvantage is that if you want to see everything you should be doing in December for your lawn, roses, annuals, perennials, bushes….well you get the idea, then you have to jump from chapter to chapter. Fortunately there’s an index if you can’t immediately determine what category your plant is in. (The chapter on vines includes a miscellany of ground covers and even ornamental grasses.)

The book is concise and to the point…as the authors explain, “Think of this book as a large, expanded checklist.” It is one of the most practical gardening books I’ve ever come across. If you are live in Texas and are new to gardening, or if you are a long-time gardener who had just moved to Texas, I highly recommend it. As for me, I’m due for a refresher course and this a very comforting book to consult. Another quote, “New gardeners do not have the experience to know the rhythm of the seasons, and more knowledgeable gardeners often wish for a clear explanation of what to do at a particular time.”

Exactly! I started my garden diary because I knew the garden cycles in Austin were different than most books I read. Month-By-Month Gardening in Texas provides validation of what I’ve observed. And so it’s won my trust in areas that in which I have no experience. Any book that recognizes that Austin has two temperate growing seasons (late-March to mid-May and late-September to mid-November) which are interrupted by “brutally hot days” of summer obviously understands what it’s like to garden in Texas. Especially when it cautions, “There are no sharp boundaries between these seasons, and gardeners should always be aware that unusually high or low temperatures may occur at any time, especially during season transitions.” One observation of August is “Since it may be too hot to enjoy working in the garden, except in early morning or late afternoon, get out those spring bulb catalogs.” Another is, “At this time of year, this section should be called ‘dreaming’ not ‘planning’.”

The pages are pleasantly laid out and easy to read. There is neither too much information packed on a page nor excessive decoration on space-wasting eye-candy. Each 2-page spread includes subsections on planning, planting, care, watering, fertilizing, and pest control.

There is a lot of repetition which is a feature, not a flaw. The repetition enables you to skip to a specific point and find the information for month and type of plant without backtracking to information from the previous month.

The writing is straight-forward and informative. I wish I had had it when I started gardening in Texas.

2006-11-18. Asclepias curassavica (bloodflower). Austin, TX. A flower photo for Firefly @ Sweet Pea Chronicle.

November 21st, 2006
Week 46: 11/12 – 11/18

Dateline: 2006
I think I should always expect Week 46 to be blustery. A cold front blew in Wednesday (11/15) with a dessicating wind, gusts up to 50 miles per hour–more wind than we’ve seen in awhile but nothing as severe as 2001 when the tree fell on our garage. The banana plants looked disheveled even though these particular bananas, Musa lasiocarpa, hold up to wind, rain, occasional hail, and drought better than most of their kin.

Temperatures dropped 20 degrees after the front, from near-record highs in the 90s to lovely clear sunny days in the 70s. Nighttime temperatures keep dipping into the 30s. I always thought our average first freeze was around Thanksgiving (from a memory of snow on Thanksgiving Eve, 1980) but KXAN weatherman, Jim Spencer, said Austin’s average first freeze was December 2. Has it changed?

These are beautiful afternoons to spend in the garden. It is dry, dry, dry though. What happened to El Nino? The bluebonnet seedlings, especially, are curling up for want of moisture. And, yes, for a change I’m being a conscientious gardener and attending to my watering–even though our wastewater averaging has kicked in and water spent on the garden now will result in higher utility bills all next year. Pam/Digging has convinced me that my meanness with water is false economy. A look at the price tag on the replacement plants I’ve had to buy this month has also been motivating.
Read the rest of this entry »

photo: Cosmos bipinnatus
2006-11-14. Cosmos bipinnatus. Austin, TX.

November 14th, 2006
Cosmos bipinnatus

The first autumn I lived in Japan, before the equinox flowers bloomed, a colleague and his wife took me to have my photo taken in a field of kosumosu. At the time my ignorance of flowers was on par with my ignorance of Japanese. I had no idea what kosumosu were even when I saw them. I guessed that they weren’t Japanese because the word was written in the Japanese script used for foreign words.

photo: Cosmos bipinnatus
Cosmos bipinnatus. Kuju Flower Park. Oita-ken. Japan. My introduction to cosmos.

In fact, cosmos are from my part of the world–native to the American southwest and Mexico and sometimes called Mexican aster. Like another Mexican native poinsettas, cosmos bloom as the days are shortening. Flowers that can bloom as the days are grow shorter make perfect sense in Texas because fall is an opportune growing season.

Most sources I’ve read said that cosmos like heat and drought–they must be talking relatively. They’ve always performed best in the cooler fall for me (86F today). But the field of flowers photographed in Japan was probably planted just after the summer solstice for our September photo op. As for water, the ones that got the most during their early days in September are the ones that are producing the largest flowers now. Luckily, they like poor soil. My garden is all about poor soil.

Cosmos are among the easiest flowers to grow from seed. The seeds are large and they germinate quickly so they make excellent flowers for children to plant. Butterflies also love them. The monarchs have been completely ignoring the Asclepias in favor of the cosmos this week. I’ve seen two types of swallowtales sucking on them as well.

Floridata warns us to check with out local extension office to see if they are invasive. Apparently they are a problem in Missouri. Unlike other annuals I’ve grown from seed, cosmos has rarely self-sown in my yard. It’s the only fall-blooming annual in the meadow so I don’t mind buying a new packet of seeds each year.

Record-tying high of 91 degrees today as I try to get more fall planting done.

November 10th, 2006
Mahonia bealei

The last time we were walking around Knutsford I noticed an intriguing tree in bloom in the tiny front gardens of one of the row houses. I recognized it as a mahonia and told AJM, “We can grow those in Texas.”

Well, sort of. Maybe we saw M. fortunei (Chinese mahonia) in England which was introduced there from China by Robert Fortune in 1846. The University of Arkansas confuses the matter–well confuses me. Mahonia swazeyi (Texas barberry) and Mahonia trifoliata (agarita) are both native to Texas. However, the mahonia I brought home from Barton Springs Nursery was M. bealei (leatherleaf mahonia). I purchased a gallon-sized plant for $6.79. I was initially attracted to the yellow flowers because yellow is a color lacking in my garden and I really need something to cheer up all the blues. The flowers are said to be fragrant. I also like its leathery, holly-shaped leaves–a definite bluish cast there. And I can’t resist plants that hint of an intelligent designer with a Seussian sense of humor. Best of all leatherleaf mahonia is a shade plant. Sounds like the perfect match for my yard.

I’m in awe of the tales Susan Harris tells at Takoma Gardener of moving plants hither and thither. I don’t think of myself as a weakling but it took me most of the day to plant my one gallon leatherleaf mahonia. First I had to clear a spot in the north border to dig the hole. There’s a lot of bindweed, smilax, and even some poison ivy in that spot. Then I had to decide exactly where I wanted to plant it. I have to be able to see it from the kitchen and bathroom windows. And since it’s where the path turns the corner, it should look good from both approaches. Finally, it has to be spaced well from the existing larger plants in the area.

Digging the hole took most of the time (about 2 hours). Luckily there weren’t as many rocks as in other spots of the yard. Nor as many tree roots as I was expecting. The advice these days is to dig the hole wide but not deep. There is a lot of mucky clay here so I dug the hole about 24 inches wide and 15 inches deep.

Because the drought has left the ground dry far below the surface I filled the hole with water twice. The first time it drained well in about 5 to 8 minutes. The second time it didn’t. It took almost 30 minutes to drain. I went to lunch to allow the water to soak in.

Although current wisdom says to refill the hole with native dirt, my native dirt was almost pure clay. So I spent some time sifting the compost pile and refilled the hole with a mix of the more loamy dirt and compost. I watered in the plant and then mulched it with some Texas native hardwood mulch.

Now for that glass of wine.

Garden History

2006-11-10. Planted.
2007-01-18. First flower. (May have flowered earlier during the ice storm but this is the first day I see it.)
2008-01-06. First flower.
Suddenly, after eleven years in the garden, this plant (which had gotten quite large over the winter) died. I think it’s because the cedar elm that was shading it is gone and now it’s getting too much sun. I was really surprised to see it turn brown and die. I’ll be digging it up sometime this month before the large brush collection.

Catalog Review: Thompsan & Morgan Seed Catalog 2007

November 9th, 2006
Thompson & Morgan Seed Catalog 2007

Thompson & Morgan Seed Catalog 2007 is the first catalog to arrive this season. Joy! If it weren’t 88F degrees outside, I’d curl up next to a fire and lose myself in dreams of spring.

My batting average for growing things from seed is pretty low. The last few years I’ve been content to let those things that I had luck with self-sow and then transplant the seedlings where I wanted them. Yet in gardening all things run in cycles and now I feel the itch of curiousity again, the desire to explore and experiment.

A cheery British optimism runs through its pages. Seedsmen who would include ginkgo and wisteria (5 seeds/$4.95 for either) assume a certain respect for their customer base. As purveyors of “Quality English Seeds Since 1855” they must be onto something. Reading these pages I always feel like I’m scanning the garden forum seed exchange notices. And I’m fond of the understated tone common to British companies. “Some of the varieties featured in this catalog are so rare that we have secured the world’s supply–please order today to avoid disappointment.”

The catalog’s is small (9×5 1/2″) on glossy paper with full color photographs. The plant descriptions terse but informative. Botanical names? Natch. A coding system is used to pack as much information into a small space as possible. This is a seed catalog that I can use as a reference book. My favorite feature is the suggested temperature ranges for germination in Fahrenheit. Another feature I like is that they indicate how many seeds are in a packet rather than sell by weight.

Seeds are gathered from all over the world, shipped to England where they are cleaned and packed, and then sent to New Jersey for distribution in the USA and Canada. Since September 2001, new regulations have made it difficult to buy or exchange seeds from overseas. As a member of the RHS, I used to participate in their seed exchange, once free but now too expensive for me to play around with. So I appreciate Thompson & Morgan for a peek into what’s popular abroad.

T&M states that they will “not knowingly offer endangered species from the wild.” And because of the backlash against genetically modified seeds in the UK and the EU they state in bold print on the inside cover, “We would like to take this opportunity to remind you that none of our seeds have been genetically modified and never will be.”

Wish List
* Lathyrus grandiflorus: ‘Elegant Ladies’ sweetpeas. I do have a weakness for sweetpeas even though I’ve really only had success with the heirloom ‘Cupani’.

* Nigella damascena: Love-in-a-Mist. My ‘Persian Jewels’ continue to self-sow but each year the flowers get smaller and their colors muddier. Maybe the very dark ‘Oxford Blue’ to celebrate AJM’s alma mater. Not like I need another blue flower in the spring meadow garden though.

* Nicotiana sylvestris: ornamental tobacco. I’ve been meaning to try this fragant white southern flower forever and still haven’t gotten around to it.

* Viola: I’ve always preferred the diminuitve violas to their cousins the pansies. Of course I’m drawn to the blue Sorbet hybrid ‘Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow’. I didn’t have luck growing violas from seed before so I’ll probably just by some six-packs from the big box store.

* Tomatos: T&M offers both hybrids and heirlooms. I’ll have to compare these against Hanna’s descriptions and against other seed catalogs. My standby tomato is ‘Sungold’–it’s the one I’ve had the most luck with over the years and I love it’s bright citrusy flavor. However, I’m always up for trying a new variety, even if I’m forced to grow them between the roses now just to find a spot of sunlight.

Review: Improve Your Gardening with Backyard Resarch.
Lois Levitan.
Rodale Press. 1980.

November 6th, 2006
Improve Your Gardening With Backyard Research

You wouldn’t be writing about your own garden if you weren’t an inquisitive sort of person, curious about what’s going on in your garden and why. Each of us knows our garden experience is unique and we blog about it to share our collective knowledge. In our frustration with garden books written for the general case, we observe and document and experiment and compare our experiences with our gardening friends.

Instead of simply documenting the development of the garden, what if you set up systematic trials to see what methods, plants, and soils work best for you? That is, what if you approached gardening (if I may use this word in 21st century America) scientifically. This ideal appeals to me because my attempts to grow plants is primarily about experimentation and only secondarily about decoration. Even in my actual landscapes I think of the world as a giant laboratory.

Lois Levitan’s Improve Your Gardening With Backyard Research give you ideas to explore and methods to explore them with. One important element of experimentation that I frequently lack is to have a “control”–something to use as a basis for comparison. For example, how do you know what ratio of brown to green materials heats up best in a compost pile unless you try different ratios?

And there are so many topics to explore in the garden. Compost. Weather. Comparing varieties of plants (like this year’s wonderful Hanna’s Tomato Tastings). Methods for dealing with pests. Composition of the soil. Companion planting. Methods for sowing seed.

My favorite discussion is on the energy efficiency of various crops–that is, does the amount of energy (in consumable calories, available proteins) exceed the amount of energy you put into growing it?

I found this to be a very inspiring book. Now if I can only get over my lazy tendencies and take action.

identify this plant

November 4th, 2006
Callisia repens Mystery Weed

When I hear the ground abuzz this time of year I get down on my knees to confirm that my mystery weed is blooming.

Weed in the sense that I didn’t plant it and it grows where it will. And yet I’m quite happy to have it because it is a bright luscious green almost all year around, even in the worst of the heat and drought. It pales a bit in the heat but the slightest sprinkling of water reinvigorates it. In a freeze any part of it exposed will turn brown. But it comes right back again.

By structure and habit I would guess this is a kind of miniature wandering Jew (Tradescantia pallida). The juicy stalks are jointed the same way and it sprouts easily wherever you break a piece off and put it in the ground. It forms a dense mat four to six inches thick. And if you decide you don’t want it somewhere it’s easy to remove–the roots are very shallow.

identify this plant

Once you have it you will always have it. Where to get it. I don’t know. I don’t know where mine came from and I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

What is it?

Update: 2006-11-05, Mystery Solved!
Valerie at Larvalbug identifies my mystery weed as Callisia repens from a clump I gave her a couple of years ago. It is also known as Tradescantia minima which seems to be a very appropriate name since it’s like a miniature Tradescantia pallida. It is indeed part of the spiderwort family, Commelinaceae.

Flora of North America says it flowers in Texas in early spring but my experience is that it flowers in late autumn.

Hawaiin Ecosystems at Risk lists Callisia repens, or inch plant, as a plant of Hawaii and has a nice photo…although the leaves on mine are more closely spaced. In contrast, the Aggies have a photo which looks nothing like my plant; they give the common names Bolivian Jew or Turtle Vine and recommend it as a houseplant.

Several sites that list it a houseplant say it has purplish in the leaves and show leaves much more ovate than lanceolate. Mine are a bright chartreuse without a hint of purple even on the underside of the leaves.