Friday, October 24, 2008

Before and After

While I was growing up I would sneak my Mom's magazines to read. Don't get me wrong - it wasn't that she didn't want me reading them - I didn't want to openly acknowledge I was reading them.I was too cool for Ladies Home Journal or Woman's Day - way way too cool.And Better Homes and Gardens? Puhleeze.

There were lots of features I skipped. Recipes, dramatic stories about emergency surgeries, craft instructions, clothing patterns, none of those held my attention at that point in my life. I was already drawn to photos of gardens and planters and floral arrangements however, and I absolutely could not resist any story that had a "Before" and "After" photograph featured.

I don't know what it was about the transformations depicted, it didn't seem to really matter what the intent of the makeover, I was simply fascinated by the ability to so clearly see something or somebody who once looked this way, and who now looked that way.

I suppose that is why, even though my family used to scoff at me for taking photographs without any people in them, I persisted over the years in taking shots of our yard as it evolved. Even without doing anything past watering and waiting, a garden bed gradually changes as the years go by.

On the other hand, we have done anything but simply wait and water in our front yard. We have slowly but surely been transforming what was once mostly a monoculture of St. Augustine grass, a typical suburban front lawn, into a large bedding area filled with various plantings, most of them natives.

So I cannot resist. A before and after comparison shot from me to you. I don't think you can quite absorb the full impact of the front beds from this distance shot but you do get the general idea and the impact of what used to be now becoming something so very different is not entirely lost. Since we have a fair amount of foot traffic in our neighborhood, I have worked hard to assure that from varying angles as you pass by, there will be surprises revealed to the careful observer. Once I figure out how to give you a patchwork of the angles, feel assured I will share them here. But for now?

Ladies and gents, [drum roll please]- our front lawn BEFORE:


and AFTER:

And now for a word from our sponsor.  For those of you who only read here and not there, I will repeat my proud announcement - we have been adopted by a stray kitten!We are calling her (we are pretty sure she is a she) Bijou, and holding a good thought for whatever it is she is calling us. Because she has had a pretty rocky start with regards to kitten/human interactions, we are spending extra time just hanging out, being cool, trying to sell her on the idea that those other very bad people were the exception and not the rule.

That means my sporadic posting here will likely be even more so for a bit. Hopefully absence will make us all that much fonder. Until then!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mulch Ado about Fungi

I was sitting here this morning, looking at one or two Garden Bloggers Bloom Day posts, when I noted one of my friends was blogging about a slightly less photogenic bloom happening in his garden beds.

Johnny from Bearded Weirdo was reporting the recurrence of not only slime mold but other (so far) unidentified fungi appearing in his garden bed. I was commenting on his post when I recalled I'd had the same stuff growing in a pot earlier this year. Had the rain triggered a regrowth?

As I turned away from my computer and looked out the back windows, my eyes were caught by a couple of flashes of unexpected yellow in one of the beds by the waterfall. "So what? It's October", you might be thinking, "those are fallen leaves".

1) This is Central Texas and we don't so much have fallen leaves in October and B) this bed is underneath nothing but palm trees.

I grabbed my camera and went to take a closer look. If April showers bring May flowers then October rains must bring mushrooms. I don't know for sure what these are, but they are certainly adding an interesting splash of fall colornested in amongst the gynura aurantiaca, otherwise known as a Purple Velvet Plant.

I headed over to the pots holding our Meyer Lemon trees and it was clear from pretty far away we'd had more fungal activity in there as well.The slime mold noted earlier, fuligo septica, seems to have been replaced by a paler more standardly formed mushroom. This may be related to the plasmodium or it may be independent. Either way, it does not seem to be harming the plant and multiple sites advise there is no way to rid an area of fungi or mold either one, so enjoying it's odd appearance seems in order.While trying to identify my shrooms (have we talked about how I suck at identifying things?) I did note on one very helpful page that the probable culprit here, lecocoprinus birnbaumii, starts out a bright yellow that fades as the cap expands to release its spores. I think that is what I have going on in the Meyer Lemon. The cap up in the soil of the planter is larger, paler than the ones by the waterfall, and it has probably, ahem!, "released its spores".That may explain the smaller more intensely yellow additions to the outside bottom edge of the pot. I'm not sure but I think I caught a glimpse of the larger cap later, smoking a cigarette and promising the smaller specimens down below, "I'll call you tomorrow".

Anyway, I am enjoying how bizarre and unusual they are and relaxing into accepting their presence as nonthreatening indicators the soil in both areas is "organically rich". I still don't know what the teensy dark mushroom is,but I am fairly certain this is simply an outgrowth of the common use of native hardwood mulches in and around our beds for years. None of this seems to concern the Meyer Lemon, which has recently bloomed.In my younger camping days, I was always advised to hunt for mushrooms sprouting on decomposing wood. It ought not be any shock to have the same thing happening on hardwood mulch. Rotting wood is rotting wood. With our cooler then warmer then wet conditions here, it is simply natural to have a different sort of bloom happening like these happy little mushrooms that have been growing for nearly a year now on this oak stump out front.One last note. Folks in the Bahamas reportedly call the yellow mushrooms Spirit Umbrellas.Besides being easier to remember (and spell) that is so much a cozier name, don't you agree?

So - go out today and take a look around. Anything fun and unusual sprouting in your yard?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Update - Bees in the Trees

I heard back from the friendly folks at the Extension Office and they clarified what is going on up in my oak tree canopy.

According to Extension Program Specialist Wizzie Brown, "Some larvae inside galls cause the gall to release sugary compounds (honeydew) onto the surface of the gall which can attract bees, wasps and ants".

So there you have it, mystery solved. The oak galls up in the canopy of this tree are releasing sugary compounds to their surfaces accounting for all the bees, wasps, butterflies and squirrels I have seen up there busily devouring them.Those galls have been transformed by the larvae inside them into the equivalent of gum balls or jaw breakers. Pretty neat trick.While I was checking around that tree generally I noted (beside yesterday's lichen wonderland) both small red spheres and fuzzy yellow balls on the underside of the oak leaves.That brought me here to Ki's blog, Mucknmire, where nearly a year ago to the day he discovered a similar fuzzy phenomenon under his oak leaves way up in New Jersey. According to his investigation the furry looking yellow spheres are wooly oak leaf galls inhabited by parasitic wasps belonging to the genus Callirhytiis.I have not determined what makes the smallish red galls - I have run out of computer time for the day and must move on to dinner preparation. If any of you know what makes the smallish red galls on the undersides of live oak leaves - speak up!

The mystery plant remains a mystery so far. A couple of the Smarty Plants folk from the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center may visit Saturday to take a first hand look and see if they can determine if it is a non-native Croton or perhaps a native with non-compliant tendencies with regards to the appearance of its leaves and flowers.

Yeah, I apparently either have an uninvited migrant or a punk plant on my hands over here. Either way, it has certainly made itself at home. I'll keep y'all posted.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I'm Lichen This

I asked, y'all danced (or sang or shook rattles at the sky or whatever). It finally RAINED here. OK, just a little under a half inch according to our rain gauge west of town but that will certainly do for starters. Others got more. I'm not greedy.Better yet, our six rain barrels were all completely filled with that one teensy shower. Now we just have to figure out how to get the gallons of water out of the barrels and on to our plants. That is definitely the weakest link in the rain conservancy chain under this system. I nervously turned the nozzle control on the hose to get water from our full to the top barrel and the water just moseyed on out, a trickle at a time. No real pressure means no real "stream" of water.That's OK. The water won't be going anywhere while we figure out a better way to move it from the barrel to the bed.

Meanwhile back in the yard..I believe we have established that I pretty much suck at identifying stuff. Whenever I spot an unusual plant or bug or snake or bird I go online and find all sorts near misses. My flora and fauna will look just like a this or a that only missing some signature element. It can be very frustrating so I readily turn to experts whenever I can.

Sometimes this yields quick results. Other times, well, let's just say it has been a long day today in the science lab otherwise known as our back yard.I currently have a plant growing that is stumping the plant identification stars at the Wildflower Center. It might be a Chamaesyce Angusta, commonly called a Blackfoot Sandmat. Or not. It is likely some form of Spurge, a plant name that makes me want to go wash my hands just from typing it out."Sweetie- please. Do not get any of that spurge on the kitchen counter. That's where Mommy fixes our food!"...

This mystery plant is also probably a Euphorbia which while not much better than Spurge at least sounds a little happier. "Bob's euphorbia quickly wore off as he realized that despite the rising poll numbers, the election was still four weeks away."

When asked, Mr. and Ms. Smarty Plants, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center personnel, flora identification gurus if there ever were any, quickly clarified that no I would not win a prize for having a plant naturally occur in my yard they cannot identify. I was however, assured my name will probably now feature prominently in epic wild plant poetry and I will be sung about around campfires on clear nights.

I suppose that will have to do.

I also currently have unanswered questions about the sudden appearance of dozens of (apparently feeding) bees up in the canopy of one of our live oaks. This does not seem to have anything to do with generalized swarming or establishing a new hive in the tree, it is as if there were flowers up there, or at least some source of nectar or nectar substitute that is drawing them in to feed.

I tried to get a clear photo of the bees but two stories down that ended up being an in and out version of that cell phone ad.
Out I would go to take 8-10 shots of the tree canopy.In I would go to download the photos and zoom in. Can you see bees now?Again I eagerly turned to the Wildflower Center, my bastion of wisdom in such matters and then more reluctantly to the County Extension Agent, the other source for when you simply need to know what the hell is going on outside in your yard. I admit, to me it is a snob thing. Wildflower Center = elite. County Extension Agent = redneck. That's not true at all of course, that's just me feeling peckish for being a written off blue voter in a bloodbath of a red state. But back to the garden.

No answers to my bees in the trees queries either.

Besides my generally futile bee paparazzi stint, I ended up taking a lot of directed photographs today to help my outsourced botanical brains give me the answers I required ..."can you get a close up of the underside of those spheres (that are 1/16th of an inch at best) and tell me if they are tri-lobulate?". "Can you get a shot of both sides of the leaves? Oh- and are they alternate or opposite?",

Honey. If I could spot if those 1/16th of an inch spheres were trilobulate that would mean I could A) throw away my multifocals and 2)open up my own "Plant Identification" shop. And the leaves? As far as I could tell they were both - alternate AND opposite. See why I stink at identification?

Anyway. In the midst of all this close up photography and surveillance of the ground around the bugged live oak in our back yard to see if there were any fallen insects, I found instead a fallen tree branch that was festooned with several different types of lichen.It was fascinating, and in my investigation to see if there was some way I could keep it growing, I discovered there is a lot more to lichens than meets the eye.

Did you know there are 3 forms of lichen? I didn't. And here is where it gets a bit "R" sounding, so parents, cover your kiddies' ears. There are foliose, crustose and fruticose lichen, all relating to the structure the lichen takes.Foliose are leafy and adhere to the substrata (in this case a branch) at several points under the thallus while the edges of the thallus generally turn upward.

The thallus (I had to look this up) is the main body of the lichen.

Crustose lichens (crusty) adhere closely to the bark at all points under the thallus. Removal from the substrata causes extensive damage. These lichens can survive in harsher environments than the other groups. More on that in a moment.

Finally there are Fruticose lichens. These are stalked, shrubby, or hair-like and attach to the bark at a single spot. These look like trees or bushes with a more upright structure.Fruticose lichens are easy to remove and prefer a spot with more light. They typically are found out closer to the ends of limbs or branches - in higher light areas.

It turns out lichens are the plant version of the canary in the coal mine when it comes to certain pollutants in the air. Since they derive their nutrients from airborne particles, they are great monitors of air quality. This means when I find a branch encrusted with several types of lichen, I probably ought not think "Ewww - lichen!" but rather should be grateful I live in an area where lichen commonly occur. If they can breathe in what they need to thrive here, then so can I. And unlike ball moss, they do not harm the trees they attach to.

The last fun fact to share is that lichen are actually not one organism but two living in symbiosis. They are composed of a fungus called the "myobiont" and one or more algae or cyanobacter called a "photobiont". What the frak! How fun is that? If I told you more I'd probably get us both on some "no fly list". As it is I am verging on stuffing so much new information into my brain that if I persist I will probably lose my ability to recall something I already know, like how to tell when pasta is done.

You go ahead and study up more on lichen if you wish and I'll keep you posted about my mystery plant and the bees in the trees. Ain't nature grand....

Monday, October 6, 2008

Those who can, do...

Those who can't, blog??? At least, that is how it seems to go with the gardening for me. I haven't blogged much at all over the past few days.  I've been fairly busy outside now that the roofers are finished, the heat is less oppressive, and we have our rain barrels installed.I have lettuce going nicely now about a month after I first planted the seed.  I will prep and seed another site for more in the next day or so to ensure a steady supply.I had a volunteer potato plant in a back raised bed I noted while raiding for dirt.  I decided to try an experiment, a variation on the trick of raising potatoes in a cardboard box which I read about over at Jugalbandi.  I had this old lampshade hanging around, on its way to the thrift store. I decided it would serve just as readily to hold mounded dirt up around the potato plant.  I will keep you posted as to results.  It could be I missed my bet, not gently moving the soil level up bit by bit as the plant developed rather than pretty much surrounding it with dirt once I noticed it.  About another 5-6 weeks will tell.While at the nursery for gravel for the barrel pads, I picked up some strawberry and bluebonnet plants.  I have some bluebonnets coming up from seed but want to develop a couple of stands of plants thick enough to guarantee reseeding year to year.  I figured to jumpstart a couple of areas with plants since my experiments with seeds have been iffy.  Again, trying things out is all part of the fun.

The strawberries are a nod to our attempts to use more edible plants that double as landscaping elements.  Strawberries will supposedly develop into a nice ground cover that provide fruit seasonally, so this represents a step in that direction.  I've read berry production drops after a few years in the ground.  It was suggested to plant the area a few plants each year in order to prolong your berry harvests.Keeping in mind what does well as cooler weather plants here and trying to match that with what we really like to eat I put in three varieties of broccoli plants, one mustard and two cabbage plants.I also picked up a couple of oregano plants and another lavender to keep the bees attracted and happy. 

I bought some seed at the nursery as well, planted about half of those and traded a friend for some of his excess for other areas.We are trying Romeo Round baby carrots, French Breakfast radishes, Oregon Giant Snow Peas, two types of Leek, Chioggia beets, orange chard, Chantennay carrots and a bit of fennel.Between weeding, judicious thinning out of some reseeding salvias, trimming back overgrown privets,  turning/preparing the soil, tricking out the potato plant and putting in seeds, that plus watering has been plenty to keep me busy.  

Now, we need RAIN!!  If any of you know a can't-fail way to produce rain (aside from sprinklers or hoses I mean)...you are officially invited to employ it. pronto.  We need water for our gardens and I'd like my rain barrels FULL, if you please.

Not that is it all work by any means.I created a kinetic toy out of a discarded roofing material spiral I've hung off one corner of our back decking.At lunch outside Sunday my husband and I were watching this mockingbird use the hammock stand as a bug hunting vantage point.  With the bird this close to the yard, the bugs didn't stand much a chance.

And finally, while sitting out reviewing what's been done and planning next steps, I finally caught a half decent shot of this red bellied woodpecker I've been admiring for months.He is shy so I can't get close without his flying off, and he moves around enough that trying to get a long shot is, well, a long shot.   I think he is quite handsome.

And that is it for now.  I will need to get some dinner organized which brings me to another blog I've been neglecting, Austin Agrodolce.  The fun never ends...  

About Me

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Rollingwood, Central Texas
Family historian by default. Oldest surviving matriarch on my branch of the Family Tree. Story teller, photo taker, gardener, cook, blabbermouth.