Monday, September 22, 2014

Project: Stock Tank Planter

What? How do I have time for a project? Well, there's no way I would have either the time or energy for a project if it weren't for my wonderful husband, Rob, and my wonderful parents offering to pick up the girls on Saturday so that we could have a whole long morning to ourselves. Well, Ian was along for the ride, and I should give him credit. He's an amazingly patient baby with all the car rides involved.

The first car ride was to Tractor Supply Co., to pick up a 2'x4'x2' stock tank. Actually, Ian wasn't along for that particular ride. But he did come with me to Barton Springs Nursery to choose and purchase plants. (Not surprisingly, he didn't give any opinion on the plant choices. I'm sure Rachel would have, had I brought her.)

Then he came with me when I picked up bags of spare packing peanuts from neighbors, and when I headed over to Red Barn Garden Center to pick up garden soil and mulch. I pulled the "my baby is asleep in the car" card that time, and just pulled up to the front, left the car and A/C running, hopped out to purchase the items at the front, and asked the cashier to have one of the guys load it for me. Years ago, I wouldn't have dared bend the rules like that. But I didn't have 3 kids then, and I know now never to wake a sleeping baby if you don't absolutely have to.

Finally, after my failed attempt at borrowing a pickax from a neighbor, I strapped Ian into his carseat once again to accompany me to the Home Depot. I probably got some sideways glances, hauling an infant in a carrier on my chest, and a mattock in my cart. Oh well! I promise I was extremely careful.

Here's the stock tank ready to fill, in approximately the same spot it's in now.

I used the mattock to punch drainage holes in the bottom. Apparently it was a louder process than I thought--right as I was finishing, my next door neighbor (opposite side of the house from this) and my previously-napping 3-year-old came around to see what the commotion was. A few whacks didn't quite punch through, but most of them did. Thanks to Robin at Getting Grounded and Lori at the Gardener of Good and Evil for the pickax idea!

Another idea of Lori's--to add drainage and save money on garden soil, I started with a layer of (free) packing peanuts at the bottom. They floated up and fluttered down like snow as I poured them in, and again when I tossed in some rocks.

Here's the rock and packing peanut "casserole".

I threw in some cardboard tubes that have been through a couple of rains in the backyard. I guess they'll eventually decompose, but for now they might help with drainage maybe.

After the first couple of bags of garden soil...

Full of soil (to the top bend in the tank, which I believe would be called a "chime", as it is on a transport drum.) Atop the soil waits a clump of 'Alphonse Karr' Bamboo (Bambusa multiplex). This is one of the most expensive plants for its size I've ever purchased, so I sure hope it works out.

At this stage, the project was fast, easy and fun. Pick up a plant, scoop out a hole for it, remove the pot, break up any compacted, circling roots, carefully lower it into the hole and tuck the dirt back in around it. With loose garden soil, it couldn't be easier.

Here's the profile with only the bamboo planted.

I positioned it close to the back of the tank, where it'll get mostly shade. This is on the West side of our house, which is a challenging spot with morning shade and afternoon sun. Plants that can hack it here will have to be able to survive some temperature extremes.

Next, I dropped in the two potted Bicolor Iris (Dietes bicolor). Note: This is not a true Iris. But it is a tough, attractive plant for hot, dry climates. I'll have to preferentially water the bamboo in the back.

Then, I tucked in the Sparkler Sedge (Carex phyllocephala).

It doesn't exactly screen the A/C unit yet, but I am optimistic about this time next year.

Finally, I added Silver Ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea) to cascade down the front, and Purple Heart Setcreasea pallida) to fill in and spill over the side and back.

Silver Ponyfoot--this would already cascade down the side, but I nestled it into the tank, hoping it will take root and form a mat, then start fuller-looking cascade, rather than the lone dreadlock look.

Here's an overhead shot of the Purple Heart on the side of the tank, still in bloom.

Here's Purple Heart at the back.

This is the view looking into the backyard. Someday the plastic Adirondack chair will be replaced with a nice bench, and a large planter on the other side of the bench. I'd love to replace the existing wood fence with a metal bar gate at some point. I wanted to screen the A/C, trash and recycling, but I also want to create more gathering spaces around the garden, even in quirky, odd little spaces like this one. The kids love playing in these rocks, so I figure this will be another place where Rob and I can enjoy watching them play.

Here's the long view from the front sidewalk.

Here's the finished, mulched planter.

Have a seat, stay a while...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

September Bloom Day

Happy early autumn greetings to my fellow gardeners! And thanks, as always, to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting the wonderful Bloom Day meme.

Here in Austin, we've had our first real break from the broiling we always get at the end of summer. Lots of plants here love that hot, dry weather, and it hasn't been cool or wet enough long enough for those plants to start fading. Most of the ones blooming in my yard right now fall into that category. The August-lovers.

Recently, in my first gardening project since Ian was born, I cut down and pulled up weeds, spread out newspaper and cardboard, and topped it all off with some leftover mulch and decomposed granite. Then I came back a few weeks later and finished out the mulch and DG areas. This is an area I hope to shape into a butterfly garden. 

Without intending to, I spread the mulch and DG into a shape that vaguely resembles a butterfly.

This was the highest aerial view I could manage, perched on top of a ladder. Yes, I tell my kids not to do this all the time.

Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii) is blooming again in the front yard, even though I didn't bother to cut off the old flower stalks after the Spring bloom.

Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) is covered in masses of pretty, sticky blue flowers. Several different varieties of butterfly like plumbago, but it seems to be a favorite with Swallowtails.

Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. Drummondii) is one I usually cut back at some point during the growing season, but didn't this year. As a result, it is tall, leggy and mostly green by now. But it still has enough bright red flowers to attract daily hummingbirds.

Our Cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens) hasn't bloomed much this year, even while the rest of those in the Austin area have been covered in purple blossoms following thunderstorms. But there are a few pretty purple flowers to enjoy at the moment. We had a whole day of rain yesterday, so perhaps we'll finally see this one go all purple.

Esperanza or Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans) has faded somewhat from its peak blooms this year, but it still has plenty of show left. My camera doesn't do justice to the intense canary yellow. I'm sure there are wildlife visitors to this one, too, but it's in the least visible (to me) and most neglected part of my garden.

Cardinal Climber Vine (Ipomoea sloteri) really surprised me this year. I have next to no experience with vines, prior to this year, and this was one we started from seed in late February, then had to keep in suboptimal conditions in the garage under flourescent light until it was warm enough to plant in the spring. I didn't think it would survive. Wrong! The hummingbirds love the tubular red flowers that are usually only open in the morning. Today they were open all day, perhaps because of the cooler temperatures and cloud cover.

One of the few perennials I have cut back this year, Pavonia or Rock Rose (Pavonia lasiopetala) is already coming back with plenty of blooms. This is another morning-bloomer that closes later in the day. I have mixed feelings about it; the little hibiscus-like flowers are charming, but it is so aggressive in full sun! It tried hard to smother some of my Crinums, which prompted the cut-back.

Salvia 'Mystic Spires' (Salvia longispicata x farinacea) hasn't been quite as aggressive, but is certainly thriving in its sunny spot in the Rainbow Bed. Deadheading it produces a whole new round of indigo spikes, within a few weeks. Lovely! The bees love it, too.

Texas Lantana (Lantana urticoides) was another aggressive perennial that got the mid-season chop this year. These perennials are gluttons for punishment!

In the shadier end of the Rainbow Bed, Scarlet or Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea) has grown to easily 4' x 3', and is both blocking sunlight from hitting much of the two Japanese Aralias behind it, and seeding out like crazy. This is another plant that I like, and the bees like... but I don't know what I'm going to do with it. Maybe this is a good candidate for transplant to the Hell Strip (parking strip in the front yard.)

Yellow Shrimp Plant (Pachistachys lutea) seems to have responded to the hot, dry peak of summer with stunted growth. It looks a little scraggly, but it's hanging in there. I wonder what effect cooler temperatures and rain will have.

Elsewhere in the garden, I found a lovely blue surprise in the Wildflower Experiment Garden. This is from the bag of Shade-Friendly Wildflower Mix I bought from Native American Seed and scattered this spring. My best guess is that this is Pitcher Sage, Salvia azurea. There are a few more of these out there that haven't started blooming yet, and several Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata) rosettes that didn't flower this spring. I'd love to see fall blooms, but only time will tell.

Clasping Coneflower (Dracopis amplexicaulis) has been blooming for a couple of months now, far and away the biggest success of the Wildflower Experiment Garden so far.

Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) slowly made it back to full bloom this summer. Lately, the yellow aphids have been taking over. I give them an occasional blast of water to try to knock them off, but otherwise don't mess with them, as the ladybugs like them. I have seen all of one Monarch butterfly visiting the milkweed this year. I understand their numbers are dangerously low. It would be such a heartbreaking loss to see this species die out.

Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana) is another plant I have mixed feelings about, but the seedheads sure put on a good show! These are wet--when dry, the seedheads are silky and feathery, undulating with the wind. Lizards and finches love to hide out in the grass mounds.

Purple Bindweed (Ipomoea cordatotriloba var. cordatotriloba), or what I like to call Wild Morning Glory, is at its peak for the year, I believe. It is most certainly aggressive, and I've done next to nothing to keep it from binding up all its neighbors in the Purple Pocket Garden this year. Interestingly, this plant has two different leaf shapes - a heart shape and a three-lobed version. )Note: I really need to take an actual botany course so that I can describe leaf shapes intelligently!)

Happy Bloom Day, and three cheers for cooler, wetter weather down here in the mid-South! (Northern Gardeners, I've been admiring your lush summer gardens all summer, from the comfort of my air-conditioned house. One of these days I'll figure out how to spend my summers far north of Austin...)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Black Gold, at least I hope it is.

So, I've been piddling around with composting for about two years now. We've had the Tumbleweed compost tumbler for about a year and a half. I've harvested the compost approximately every six months, so we've had three harvests.

Here's the thing: I'm still not sure I'm doing it right.

I put in our vegetable-based kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, etc, and "brown" materials like leaves in the fall, shredded newspaper in the spring and summer. I turn the thing regularly. I'll admit I don't chop kitchen scraps or even yard scraps into tiny pieces to hasten the decomposition process--I'm just not dedicated enough to take it to that level, I guess. I don't own a compost thermometer, either.

And eventually, like today, I get some promisingly dark brown, earthy- (not nasty-) smelling stuff. It just tumbles out in balls--anywhere from little dime-sized crumbles to softball-sized or bigger clumps. I can manually chop them into smaller bits, like I was doing in this bucket, with this scoop. But I wonder whether the components have broken down sufficiently to benefit the garden where I spread them.

I'm not sure about the correct procedure for emptying the composter, either. My unscientific method is: unscrew both end caps, dump the stuff on the ground, rake it together and shovel it into a bucket, where I haul it and dump it wherever I want to spread it.

I'm sure I'm wasting at least a little bit this way. But I figure it might benefit the plants immediately surrounding the compost area.

Here's a recent new addition to my composting area--an open, wire bin. I'm layering green and brown materials here, too. The only problem with this, so far, is that it has attracted a family of mice, who are living under some railroad ties buried along the back fence. I don't so much mind these critters in my yard, but I bet my neighbors would. I don't want them in my house, though. 

I won't poison them--that seems overly cruel, and I've heard about the problems posed up the food chain to dogs and birds of prey. I'd rather not trap them, either, if I can avoid it.

I'm hoping that by starting the compost over in the tumbler, and letting the open bin rest with no new additions for a while, the mice will just find food elsewhere and decide to move. Any thoughts/suggestions are welcome!

Here's the inside of the tumbler, post-harvest. Clumped around the middle are bits of shredded newspaper.

Here's the empty veggie bed, awaiting compost.

And here's the newly added compost. Exciting, I know. 

I guess I won't know whether I'm going about this compost business the right way until I see what happens with the veggie garden this fall, after I've planted it (September) and given the plants a month or two to do their thing (October-November).

Any advice from fellow gardeners would be gratefully welcomed!