“Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud-turtles elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, waterlilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.” — Luther Burbank

June 27th, 2010
The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

Recently someone asked on Twitter, “Why create hybrid tomatoes that mimic the look and taste of heirloom tomatoes when you can just grow heirlooms?” My answer (despite the fact that I do grow heirloom varieties). Early blight. Late blight. Southern blight. Verticillium wilt. Gray leaf spot. Septoria leaf spot. And improved yields. Even the heirlooms that are currently popular have been selected and saved because they had something special that caught human attention. We are always on the lookout for bigger, better, and more because our population keeps increasing while the amount of land available for food production decreases.

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” — Thomas Jefferson

By Jefferson’s measure, Luther Burbank stands head and shoulders above everyone. Burbank was not a plant explorer, scouring the new continent for plants unknown to European settlers. He was a plant inventor. He created more than 800 plants. Plumcot. Shasta daisy. Spineless prickly pear. Russet potato. Royal walnut. Elephant garlic. Stoneless plum. None of these plants existed 150 years ago and all of them are the results of his efforts.

Jane S. Smith has written a very readable biography–one that provides plenty of specific information and establishes the historical and social environment in which Burbank created.

As a young man, Burbank read Darwin’s Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication which sparked in him the idea that he could accelerate evolution by selection, crossing, grafting, and even changing the environment in which plants grow. And then he just went out and did it.

Burbank was not a scientist in today’s narrow sense of the world. He was not interested in theoretical knowledge, in controlled experiments, in keeping careful documentation in order to ensure reproducible results. He focused on the practical application of Darwin’s theories. Like his friends, Edison and Ford, he was an inventor and a businessman. However, unlike them, his inventions–new plants–could not be patented.

Immensely popular in his day, his name was good business for the seed companies and booksellers. Yet, he did not fit easily into other people’s schemes. The fledgling scientific community was baffled by his–what we’d call these days “New Age”–ideas. In order to protect his business, he was not open about his processes. And he did not keep precise records. He knew what he did and how he did it but he wasn’t anxious to share his methods with others and thus lose his competitive advantage. He also got into trouble with fundamentalist Christians for bold claims of improving on God’s creation and also for suggesting that we not “search the Bible for rules of blind obedience or…frighten children with visions of hell. The meaning of life was to be found in the flow of experience, not in any expectation of heaven.” He was “denounced in pulpits across the country” and received “hate mail, abusive telegrams, and threatening phone calls.”

Burbank’s practices of carefully breeding and ruthlessly selecting only superior plants did not extend to his ideas on improving the human race. He did not approve of eugenics in any of its forms. He lectured, “What we should do is strengthen the weak, cultivate them as we cultivate plants, build them up, and make them the very best they are capable of becoming.” He was an advocate putting off formal education until a child was at least ten, of a national system of non-sectarian relief to provide food and a healthy environment to children whose parents could not afford to provide for them. He believed investing in children was a shared investment in the future of the country, not charity.

In our century, plant invention has moved into what many consider the dark area of genetically-modified organisms. Jane S. Smith makes an insightful contrast to today’s patented monocultures.

“From the Plant Patent Act of 1930 to the contemporary battles over bioengineered crops, the history of modern agriculture is a record of increasing claims of property rights over what once was the common heritage of nature…Burbank and all his man plant-breeding brethren were dedicated to expanding the grower’s options, supplementing known varieties of just about every kind of plant with new ones that looked better, lasted longer, grew more lushly, tasted sweeter, could be shipped farther, and could be afforded by every consumer.”

Today the focus of the large plant breeder seems to be a desire to constrain natural biodiversity in order to give them a monopoly on their patented creations.

I really enjoyed The Garden of Invention. If you are interested in reading it, it’s on sale at Daedalus Books for $4.98. (No, I’m not getting a referral fee. I bought my copy at Half Price Books for $9.99).

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010
Water lily ‘Rhonda Kay’ at Mark and Debi’s garden.

June 23rd, 2010
Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

Now on my fourth year of touring Austin ponds, I see that my eye has begun to wander. I snapped very few photographs of ponds. So, if this post leaves you wanting, head over to The Transplantable Rose where @Annieinaustin provides a more complete tour.

Jim’s Garden

The 10 x 25 foot pond fills the gap between the addition to the house and the fence. The room overlooking the pond is walled in glass so that you can sit in the comfort of the indoors and see nothing but waterfalls and plants. Now that’s designing for our Austin environment!

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

What I was particularly attracted to were these metal and concrete risers. I’ve been wanting to do metal enclosed terraces between our house and pond. I love these sinuous curves.

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

The pond creator, Kevin Wood, was there showing before and process photos on his iPad. Unfortunately, he didn’t do the stairs.

Danette’s Garden

Kevin Wood also did Danette’s garden which I found quite peaceful.

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

The waterfall muted the noise from the bustle of nearby South Congress. But the sense of peace came from something more than silence. Although filled with many interesting plants, the garden had a feeling of openness and space. One could breathe deeply in it.

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

The plant that really caught my eye was a white, single Rose of Sharon. Most modern Rose of Sharon flowers are double and I didn’t even recognize it as the same flower. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for it. I think I like Rose of Sharon even more than Austin’s ubiquitous crape myrtles (which do look fantastic this year). And they’re just as easy to keep alive in Austin.

Leeann’s Garden

Leeann’s garden was designed to be a delightful environment for children to play in. Even though the back yard was tiny, it was filled with places to explore and hide in. The garden was a natural playscape, both fun and beautiful. This tiny, imaginative space made me feel sorry for children doomed to grow up in the bland lawn infested suburbs.

golden lace Polish hen

The garden was filled with trees, water, and (of course) critters. A bunny. And four chickens. How could anyone resist the charms of a a golden lace Polish hen?

Mark and Debi’s Garden

We visited Mark and Debi’s garden on previous pond tour in July after two years of drought. Even then the pond and landscape were in good condition because they are watered from an artesian spring which provides 10,000-20,000 gallons of water a day. (Compare that to my usage in the worst heat of summer–10,000 gallons of water a month.)

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

All that water plus all the water from our wet winter produced one of the lushest gardens I’ve ever seen in Austin. I probably took more photos here than at any other garden.

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

I overheard Mark say that before he became a doctor he was an engineer–which is why he likes to build things. I also appreciate that he labeled his huge collection of water lilies. Now I know the one I want to buy is called ‘Star of Siam’. I love its mottled leaves. However, I doubt that it will fit in my small pond.

Bud’s Garden

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

I had seen Bud’s garden before and, again, it was interesting to see it earlier in the season and after a rainy spell rather than in the drought. The plants had really filled in and I preferred the choices to the zinnias that were there when I last saw it.

Susan’s Garden

Susan’s garden is one of the best shade gardens I’ve ever seen in Austin. The backyard is just a typical-sized suburban yard but the entire space is filled with plants. To make it seem even larger, the path through the garden is a circle. You can’t see the entire garden at glance and you’re drawn along the circular path to find out what’s just out of sight.

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

Plant choices for dry, hot shade always seem so limited. But this was a very inventive garden. It had lots of whimsical garden objects and a really gorgeous wooden bench, too. If this garden hasn’t been on Central Texas Gardener yet, it should be.

Bill and Kharon’s Garden

The pond was small but deep and filled with fish. “Too many fish,” Kharon said. What I really liked about it was how the water plants were arranged. I wish I could have gotten a better photo but people were clustered around the edge looking at the fish.

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

I really like the bald cypress in the pond–although I wonder what will happen to it when it gets too big for the pond.

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

Lisa and Donald’s Garden

This garden was such a surprise. From the street, I would never have guessed that such a wonderful place was hidden in the back. I loved all the woodwork in the fences, porches, and outbuildings–both the style and the colors really appealed to me.

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

The Transplantable Rose has a photo of the deep green lawn with two tomato red chairs on a tiny patio. Perfect!

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

Here’s an excellent solution to the fence height restrictions.

Austin Pond Society Tour 2010

raspberry Dorman
2010-05-30. After a good rainfall, the raspberries plumped up invitingly.

June 20th, 2010
Raspberry ‘Dorman’

Some of you have been waiting almost as impatiently as I have for the outcome of the great Austin raspberry experiment. In February, 2009 I dug deep and built a raised bed and planted raspberries. Raspberries are not recommended for Austin because our summers are too hot and our soil is too alkaline. But I had come across a variety, ‘Dorman’, which was supposed to be able to take our climate. And, well. I love raspberries.

Difficult as it was to wait for raspberries for an entire year, I followed the advice to pinch off the flowers the first year. Raspberries produce best on last year’s canes. Every year after the harvest, the old canes are thinned out to make room for the new canes on which next year’s fruit grows. The canes shot up to the top of the trellis, eight feet, and then curved down to the ground. Raspberries come in different forms and ‘Dorman’ is a rambling raspberry. Where the tip of the longest cane touched the ground it rooted. I now have a fourth raspberry plant (growing in completely unamended clay).

raspberry Dorman
2010-04-10. Raspberry flowers.

The raspberries survived the summer of second-most 100° days in Austin. They survived the big freeze in January 2010. They grew lush with all the extra rain and cooler days we had between September and April. On April 18th, they began flowering. I watched them like a bird for a month. Nothing. When we came back on May 25th from a week away, some raspberries had ripened. The birds had eaten most of the ripe ones. We covered the canes in netting. We tasted some raspberries the birds had missed.

As the Japanese say, “Suppai!” They were both flavorless and a bit sour at the same time. (Perhaps the flavor was more astringent/alum flavor, like green persimmons–“shibui” than “suppai”.)

raspberry Dorman

Perhaps we weren’t letting them ripen enough. Also, they hadn’t been watered the week we were gone. That week we had a nice rain and covered raspberries grew plump and deep red. The flavor did not improve. Over two weeks I ate raspberries every morning. I’m guessing I harvested about a quart of raspberries. And they were all bland and a bit sour. They were completely lacking in the unmistakable razzy raspberry flavor.

raspberry Dorman

So, yes. It turns out we can grow raspberries in Austin. But if you grow ‘Dorman’ they aren’t really worth the effort. Next I will try to find a variety that is known for its flavor and see if I can trick it into tolerating Austin.

Helianthus annuus
Wild sunflower.

June 15th, 2010
GBBD 201006: June 2010

Carol at May Dreams Gardens invites us to tell her what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th of each month.

June 15, 2010

Austin is in the glory of first summer now and its colors are like the chorus of that Pete Seeger ditty, Henry My Son, green and yeller. May, typically one of Austin’s wettest months, was unusually dry in 2010. However, June has made up for it with big storms bringing 2 inches of rain (June 2) and 4 inches of rain (June 9) to Zanthan Gardens. As a result, lot of fading spring flowers, like bluebonnets, larkspur, false dayflowers, nigella, and Confederate jasmine put out a few more flowers. And several of the roses are producing a second flush: ‘Blush Noisette’, ‘New Dawn’, and ‘Ducher’. ‘Red Cascade’ continues to have a few flowers from its first flush.

Lupinus texensis
Fading bluebonnet. Two new flowers opened today but all the flowers are very pale in the heat.

New for June

My old faithfuls for first summer are in full flower: Rudbeckia hirta, Hibiscus syriacus, Antigonon leptopus, various Ruellia, and Polanisia dodecandra.

All over town Austin’s ubiquitous summer flower, the crape myrtle, is laden with bloom. I don’t think I’ve ever seen with such huge flowers before–just like our spring wildflowers. I credit the incredible rain from September to April. The lesson I’m learning is that while these flowers may tolerate our heat and drought, they really love twice the water we normally give them.

Lagerstroemia indica Catawba
Lagerstroemia indica ‘Catawba.’

2010 was also the best year ever for my vitex (now fading). I have so much shade in my garden that both the crape myrtle and the vitex are pretty subdued compared to what you’ll see elsewhere in Austin

I’m still waiting for the oleander, duranto, and plumbago to flower. They are struggling back from their roots after Austin’s unusual big freeze in January 2010. I’m happily finding all sorts of plants I thought had died in the freeze springing back–the biggest surprise was new growth on the bottlebrush bush. And although I wasn’t surprised to discover a lot of self sown datura, I was to see new growth springing from the stump of one of last year’s plants.

I’ve had such good luck with the scraggly annual black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) that I thought I’d give the more impressive Rudbeckia maxima a try.

Rudbeckia maxima
Rudbeckia maxima.

Between GBBDs

Several flower bloomed and faded in my garden between GBBDs and so didn’t show up in the inventory for either May or June: Gladiolus ‘Flevo Bambino’, globe artichoke, Opuntia ficus-indica, and Callirhoe involucrata.

Complete List for June

This is the list of all plants flowering today, June 15th 2010, at Zanthan Gardens.

  • Abelia grandiflora (2010)
  • Antigonon leptopus (2010)
  • Antirrhinum majus (2010)
  • Aristolochia fimbriata (2010)
  • Asparagus densiflorus (2010)
  • Chilopsis linearis (2010)
  • Commelina communis (2010)
  • Commelinantia anomala (2010)
  • Consolida ambigua (2010)
  • Engelmannia peristenia/pinnatifida (2010)
  • Eschscholzia californica ‘Mikado’ (2010)
  • garlic (2010)
  • Helianthus annuus (2010)
  • Hesperaloe parviflora (2010)
  • Hibiscus syriacus (full bloom) (2010)
  • Lantana ‘New Gold’ (2010)
  • Lavandula heterophyla ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ (2010)
  • Lupinus texensis (a couple of fading flowers) (2010)
  • Malvaviscus arboreus (2010)
  • Mondo grass (2010)
  • Nierembergia gracilis ‘Starry Eyes’ (2010)
  • Nigella damascena (fading singles and doubles) (2010)
  • Oenothera speciosa (2010)
  • Origanum vulgare (2010)
  • Oxalis triangularis (2010)
  • Parkinsonia aculeata (2010)
  • Pavonia hastata (2010)
  • Polanisia dodecandra (2010)
  • rose ‘Blush Noisette’ (2010)
  • rose ‘Ducher’ (2010)
  • rose ‘New Dawn’ (2010)
  • rose ‘Red Cascade’ (2010)
  • rosemary (2010)
  • Rudbeckia hirta (2010)
  • Rudbeckia maxima (2010)
  • Ruellia (2010)
  • Sedum album (2010)
  • Setcresea (both purple and green) (2010)
  • Thymophylla tenuiloba ‘Golden Fleece’ (2010)
  • tomato (2010)
  • Trachelospermum jasminoides (almost finished) (2010)
  • Verbena canadensis (lavender wilding) (2010)
  • Vitex agnus-castus (2010)
  • waterlily ‘Helvola’ (2010)
  • Zexmenia hispida (2010)
  • unidentified white-flower (2010)

unidentified white flower
Unidentified white flower.

globe artichoke
2010-05-27. The artichoke finally opens its flowers.

June 2nd, 2010
Cynara cardunculus, Artichoke

Sometimes it’s better not to do any research before impulsively buying a plant you love. What if I had read about the growing requirements of artichokes?

“While climate is a more important factor in production of tender buds than soil, artichokes are heavy feeders requiring large amounts of nitrogen and moist but well-drained soil…winter temperatures should be above freezing and summers should be cool and foggy. — How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method (Rodale)

Could Austin be any less ideal for growing artichokes? My soil is dry, poorly draining black clay. Cool and foggy? Austin? I planted my artichoke in the spring of 2009, smack in the middle of our 2-year drought and just before Austin faced the summer of 67 days 100° plus temperatures. The artichoke struggled but somehow I managed to keep it alive all summer. Luckily, all I knew about growing artichokes was that someone up the street had one and it produced beautiful huge purple flowers.

In September 2009, it began raining in Austin and rained all fall, winter, and early spring. The artichoke liked that.

globe artichoke
2010-01-04. Artichoke plant just before the big freeze.

But in January, Austin got three days of freezing temperatures in a row that were unusually low for us (in the teens). I threw a sheet over the artichoke but was too busy worrying about even more tender plants to do anything else for it. It looked a bit shocked after the experience but as temperatures warmed it perked up. An afternoon of snow didn’t faze it.

globe artichoke
2010-02-23. The artichoke weathered Austin’s snow day.

A perennial, it sent up suckers, one of which I managed to remove and transplant successfully. By April 2010, the plant had doubled in size and the first bud was visible. Some bug ate it.

Soon other buds formed.

globe artichoke
2010-04-26. Artichoke bud.
For six weeks, I watched the globes get bigger and bigger. We considered eating some but as neither of us really like artichokes decided to hold out for the flowers.

globe artichoke
2010-05-11. Is it ever going to open?

On May 18th, we went on vacation. Still no flowers. When we returned a week later, the flowers had finally opened. Unfortunately, with temperatures in the 90s and no water in a week, the stems had bent to the ground under the weight of the huge flower heads. One had snapped. Talk about blooming its head off.

globe artichoke
2010-05-27. Collapse of the monster plant.

Was the artichoke worth the trouble? Oh, yeah!

globe artichoke

The flowers are impressive. Even if they are upside down. Maybe next year we’ll eat a few buds.

globe artichoke