Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New directions

I have become disinterested in blogging about desert gardening and will not be making further updates this year. I will preserve the content to date and encourage readers interested in gardening in desert climates to explore the blogs and other resources posted on the right.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Mulch madness

Casa Congilio has the post I've been meaning to write on gravel mulch, only with better writing and photos.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Texas Mountain Laurel

Oooh that smell.
Can’t you smell that smell?
Oooh that smell.
The smell of death surrounds you.

Now that I’m out of that place Amy Winehouse won’t go and El Paso plant life is starting to wake up again, let’s bring this blog back to life with a post about those fragrant, purple flowers you smell throughout the city.

If you see the flowers on a large shrub or small tree with glossy green leaves like the one at right you are looking at Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora). If, on the other hand, you see the flowers on a vine climbing up the fence, across the carport, up the telephone pole, and continuing on utility lines a half mile down the street you are most likely looking at Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis); you would think it to be aggressive if the homeowner hadn’t cut it to the ground last year.

For most of the year Texas Mountain Laurel is a non-demanding evergreen shrub doing what non-demanding evergreen shrubs do—being a pretty glossy green without any complaint regarding the heat or lack of rain. In our hot, dry desert environment that alone is enough to make it a highly desirable landscape plant. But wait there’s more. For a few weeks in spring the plant is covered with lilac-esque purple flowers, and those flowers have a pungent grapey fragrance. Now how much would you pay?

The unfortunate thing is you might have to pay quite a bit in both time and money for a specimen because Texas Mountain Laurels are slow growing and do not transplant very well. Being the cheapskate that I am, I intend to start a shrub or two from seeds using Bob Harms‘s protocol. In about 10 years or so, I should be able to show off a picture of it in an honest March or April Garden Bloom Day post. For now, I’m going to cheat on those things.

Another downside, that grapey smell just may be the smell of death; the seeds are highly toxic. But ripe seeds are very hard and are encased in an even harder outer pod that will probably keep an accidental ingestion from causing lasting harm. To be truly safe, a gardener can remove the seed pods shortly after flowering, and that may be the only maintenance this wonderful shrub needs.

Friday, February 1, 2008

What's a locavore?

While the Firefox spell checker does not yet recognize it, locavore was chosen as the word of the year for 2007 by the New Oxford American Dictionary. In choosing locavore as its word of the year, the Dictionary is recognizing a growing trend among environmentally conscious individuals to eat seasonal foods grown or raised near their own homes. Several testimonials of locavores have been published in recent years and I have read two of them this winter. I am of course saving plenty of time for the seed catalogs.

The first locavore account I read was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life written by the accomplished author Barbara Kingsolver, along with her husband Steven Hopp, and her daughter Camille Kingsolver. Step one for the Hoppsolver clan was to move from the parched Sonoran desert to the verdant hills of Appalachia which are much more suited to raising and growing our conventional foodstuffs. In Appalachia, Kingsolver and company grew and raised much of their own food and sourced what they didn't grow or raise from local producers whenever possible, drastically reducing their food footprint.

Kingsolver's fellow author and friend, Gary Paul Nabhan details his decidedly different approach in Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods. Unlike Kingsolver, Nabham remains in the desert and eats the traditional foodstuffs of Native American groups living within 250 miles of his Arizona home. By feasting on roasted mescal, cactus fruits and pads, tortillas made from mesquite pod flour, grasshoppers, quail, and other traditional foods, Nabham builds a strong relationship with the land that sustains him, that quite literally builds him molecule by molecule. For the Native Americans of today who are disproportionately affected by diabetes, a restoring of ancient food and cultural traditions has the added benefit of improving health.

Like Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, both of these books further convince me of the unsustainable nature of our modern agricultural system. They motivate me to consider ways in which I can reduce my food footprint. I will continue to try growing food crops on a small scale and will by the bulk of my seed from Native Seed/SEARCH, an organization co-founded by Nabhan that conserves seeds of heirloom crop varieties that are adapted to desert environments. I may also consider some of the traditional food crops of the Chihuahuan desert, but I think I'll pass on the grasshoppers for now.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Redbud vs. snow

My latest garden addition; suffering under rare desert snowfall (KGP)

Despite a lack of posting, I am not dead, and I am still gardening. Last weekend, El Paso received a rare early snow storm putting the many of the area's trees that have not yet lost their leaves at risk of limb breakage. The tree pictured above is the latest addition to my garden, a Mexican Redbud (Cercis canadensis var. mexicana).

Like its more eastern cousin, the Mexican Redbud is covered with pink blossoms just before leafing out in the early spring. Its leaves are smaller than Eastern Redbuds and have curled margins, presumably making the tree more drought tolerant. Several sources online report that its wood can be weak, so I brushed off the accumulated snow shortly after this picture was taken and the tree looks no worse for wear. Other trees in our area were not so lucky; I saw limb damage on many trees, especially mulberries and rosewoods.

In the El Paso area, it appears the Mexican Redbud is appreciative of some afternoon shade, and its location on the east of the house will give it shade and protection from the prevailing west to east winds. I hope to grow my specimen as a multi-trunked tree, and I think it will make a good little patio tree.

Note: Blogger comments have changed and no longer allow those without Blogger/Google accounts to leave signed comments. If you do not have a Blogger account, please comment anonymously and feel free to include links in your comment.

Edit to add: In the comments, Pam notes that you can leave signed comments using the Nickname feature. I've tested, and the
comment fields allow for html tags so it is possible to leave a signed comment with a clickable link by using the following code along with your comment:
<a href="URL for your blog">Your Name</a>

Pam has also given another work around in the comments that is far less vulnerable to impersonators.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Touring in the garden blogosphere

In a comment regarding my earlier desert walk post, Pam in Austin, author of the blog Digging, asks, "Have you noticed other garden-bloggers doing this meme in their own neighborhoods?"

I have noticed a few tours, but I wasn't aware it had reached meme status. (Until a few days ago I wasn't even familiar with the word meme used in this context.) The inspiration from my desert tour post came directly from Chuck B's post involving some special brownies and a few gigabytes of photos. Kate in Utah gives us a different kind of high on a walk with Bad Dog. Twisty beat all the garden bloggers to the scene with a tour of some that is weird in Austin.

Pam encourages a trip to Outside Clyde for a tour of his rural North Carolina 'hood. That post will lead you to Kim's tour in Ohio and also to Pam's own tour. It's a great trip around the world through the eyes of fellow gardeners in a matter of minutes. I have to admit this is quite fun; it certainly isn't as good as actually being there, but it is a bunch cheaper. Remember, whether or not they tour the neighborhood, you can always find a garden blogger near (or very far away) from you via the Garden Blog Directory at Gardening Tips 'n' Ideas.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Why can't weeds be friends

Last month at This Garden is Illegal, Hanna blogged about purslane, calling it "one of the prettier weeds that grow in my yard." Not only is it a good-looking, low-maintenance ground cover, it is also edible and nutritious. One commenter (the blog has since been moved and some comments were lost in the change so you'll have to take my word for it) asked the rather obvious question (and of necessity I paraphrase), "Do I have to pull it?"

I will confess that I leave some weeds in my yard intentionally. When I am not being lazy, I do pull the thorny or invasive weeds, but some of the best color in my young landscape comes from a few volunteers. Last year, the only plant (see why I call it a zeroscape?) in the front yard was a volunteer aster of some sort that grew to be about 3 feet tall and wide. Despite receiving no care, it was covered in yellow flowers from early summer until it was uprooted by wind in the fall.

In the background of the photo above are buckwheat (I think) volunteers, and in the foreground is a volunteer prickly pear from my parents' yard. In this same area, there is also an ocotillo volunteer from my parents' place. The photo below shows another wildflower that has just started blooming. This one is regularly driven over and tolerates the abuse just fine; there are not many more horticulturally-approved plants that could pull that off.

In central Texas at springtime, normally deserted roads teem with slow-moving and even dangerously parked vehicles filled with people searching out beautiful displays of wildflowers. After taking in the spectacle, many visitors return home and, rather amusingly, mow their own yards. What they find beautiful in nature is deemed unacceptable for their own backyards. With less work and expense than maintaining a traditional lawn, many of the people that go "wildflower peeping" could have the same beauty in their own landscape. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center offers a how to guide for this very purpose: Wildflower Meadow Gardening (a PDF file).

Only weeds grow like weeds, and sometimes they can be a good choice. I might even call them friends.