Baby Cardinals on the Porch

I don’t know what it is about moving to the country that turns people into nature lovers, but it most definitely happens.  When my wife’s parent retired to their farm, the grand kids started teasing them because they had more pictures of their “critters” than they did of any of them.  Well, the same thing is now happening to us.  We recently “hatched” three baby cardinals on our back porch.  The whole process was so exciting to watch that we took about a million pictures to document it. Because of these baby cardinals our kids have started to tease us just like they teased their grandparents 15 years ago.

“Our” three cardinal eggs

The cardinal experience started when my wife and I noticed something making a nest in potted plant  on the back porch.  We enjoyed watching the progress but we had no idea what was building it.  It was truly amazing to watch a few pieces of dry grass begin to twist together and form the most perfect little nest you ever saw.

Our babies right after hatching

After about three weeks of watching the nest take shape, we came home one afternoon and found the cutest little brown speckled egg in the nest. Once that first egg arrived we began to pay close attention to the back porch.  After the second egg appeared in the nest we finally saw a lovely female cardinal sitting on the nest.  The next morning we went out and found the third an final egg.

Hungry babies!

Once we certain that we had cardinals, we decided to find out how the rest of this little drama would progress.  So, we went to Google and discovered some very interesting cardinal facts.  Cardinals typically lay 3 eggs but they can lay anywhere from one to five.  The female does all of the incubation and she doesn’t start to sit until she has finished laying.  The eggs will hatch in 11 to 13 days after she starts sitting.  Once hatched, both the male and female will feed the young.  The male gets the extra benefit of defending the territory and carrying off the little poops sacks that the young expel.  The baby cardinals are fast growing and they fledge, or leave the nest, 9 to 11 days after hatching.

Our babies are ready to leave the nest

All of these facts were proven out by our three baby birds.  They hatched 11 days after the female starting sitting.  The first brave baby left the nest on day 9 and the other two were gone when we came home on day 10.  It was so exciting to watch this avian miracle of life unfold right before us.  Watching these birds go from egg to first flight in 20 days was truly amazing to me me.  I guess this is why people that move to the country become nature lovers.  In the country you have the opportunity to get close to nature.  And, the closer you get, the more and more amazing it is to watch.

Since our kids are tired of seeing the pictures, I hope you don’t mind us sharing these with you.  Enjoy!

Controlling Squash Vine Borers (Melittia cucurbitae)

A squash vine borer moth in Patty Leander's garden. Photo by Bruce Leander

In my mind, squash vine borers are kind of the nut sedge of the insect world. They reproduce like crazy and they are very difficult to control. Very few pests in the garden are as dreaded and damaging as the squash vine borer.  While aphids make your leaves look ugly, squash vine borers make your whole plant die!

A close up of the grub like larvae of the squash vine borer. Photo by Bruce Leander

Since we have had such an unusually mild winter, many people have planted early.  Because of this, their squash is now at a perfect state of maturity to be attacked by these  pests.  So, I thought I would take this opportunity to give a few tips on controlling them.  While there are both organic and commercial pesticides out there , the best way to control these pests (in my opinion) are your growing practices.

Squash Nine Borer eggs. Photo by Bruce Leander

First, if you want to stop the problem before it begins, grow your squash under floating row cover. If you put row cover around your plants when they start to vine, you can prevent the borer from laying its eggs on your vine.  Cut a fairly large piece of row cover so it can expand as the plant grows.  Anchor the edges in the soil with dirt, boards or bricks; anything that will create a seal and prevent the moth from getting to the base of your plant. Be aware that if you put row cover over your plants before they pollinate, you will have to pollinate by hand.

Squash being grown by under row cover in Patty Leander's garden. Photo by Bruce Leander

If row cover and hand pollination are more than you want to deal with, watch for the adult borers in your garden. You can hear them buzzing if you are close. However, if you can’t be outside, you can place yellow sticky traps around your plant. Since they are attracted to the yellow (like the squash flowers) the moths will get trapped and let you know they are in the area. Once you know they are there, look for their eggs on the stems and under the leaves that are close to the base of your plant. They are pretty small and reddish brown in color. Once you find them, pull or scrape them off with your fingernail or a sharp knife.

A healthy zucchini. Photo by Bruce Leander

If you see little bumps forming on the base of your vines, you have an infestation.  You can take a razor blade and cut into the infected area. If this doesn’t kill the larvae, remove it and then tape the cut with floral tape or pack with soil. If done soon enough, the plant will recover and produce as normal.

 

If your squash wilts and does not recover in the morning, there is a very good chance you have the squash vine borer. Photo by Bruce Leander

Because effective control of this pest is so hard to do, try planting squash varities that are not as affected by the borer. I grow tatume’ squash and it has no problems with the bugs. Also, do not plant in the same place year after year. They larva pupate in the soil under the plant they killed so every year move your squash as far as possible from where it was grown last year.

Some squash varieties like "Tatume" are not bothered by the squash vine borer.

If you are not of the organic mindset, there are a few chemicals out there that do a pretty good job of controlling borers.  The most common and readily available is Sevin Dust.  Sevin works pretty well against the moth.  However, it has a very short effective period so if using it, apply weekly.  Also, the chemical Methoxychlor (trade name include Marlate, Chemform and Methoxy-DDT) is very effective and relatively safe.  Methoxychlor is very popular in greenhouse applications because of its relatively low level of toxicity.

Nothing is more disappointing than seeing your beautiful squash reduced to a pile of shriveled of green stuff in two or three days.  Squash vine borers have broken more hearts than any other bug I know.  Because these pests are so destructive it is important to be alert and stay on top of them.   The best way to control an attack is to stop it before it starts.  So, go to garden regularly and watch for any sign of the pest.  With a little diligence you can keep this bug from depriving you of all of the wonderful summer squash.

Austin’s Funky Chicken Coop Tour

Like just about every other middle class American, my wife and I feel like we need some chickens.  I don’t know what is going on with people and chickens right now, but these fluffy egg producers seem to be about the hottest thing going.  Sally and I have talked about getting chickens for a while now.  However, talk is as far as it has gone.  We mentioned our chicken desires to our friend Linda Lemusvirta and she suggested that we attend the Funky Chicken Coop Tour in Austin.  So, two weeks ago, that is exactly what we did.

Andrea Feathers is the artist that designed the incredibly cool logo for the tour. Photo by Sally White

Austin’s Funky Chicken Coop Tour started in 2009.  Over the years it has grown into one of the most successful events of its kind anywhere.  The tour is designed to educate people in the whys and how tos of keeping backyard chickens.  Austin is at the forefront of backyard chicken raising movement.  In fact, it has the second highest number of backyard, urban chickens in the US.  Since there are so many chicken coops in Austin and a whole bunch of people who like things that are a little bit weird, Austin is the perfect place for this event.

My daughter Jessie dressed appropriately for the occasion. Photo by Cameron Bell

The tour started at the Buck Moore Feed Store in central Austin.  There, tour goers picked up their maps, registered for a really sweet grand prize and had the opportunity to visit with a host of vendors that were selling just about everything you could ever imagine related to chickens.  The weather was great and everyone was so friendly.  I almost hate to say this, but I think I had more fun at Buck Moore’s than I did one the rest of the tour.

Sharing a laugh with my friends from the Brazos Valley Poultry Club. Photo by Cameron Bell

The tour consists of several coops scattered all across Austin.  You pay a $10 fee for a map and then you, and as many people as you can squeeze in your car, use that map to drive around and visit with the people that are successfully raising chickens in their backyards.  The coops come in all flavors; large, small, beautiful and humble.  Each of the hosts that we visited with seemed genuinely happy that you and about 1000 other people had come to walk through their yard and admire their birds and coops.

Pactical advice from the folks at Urban Patchwork Neighborhood Farms. These are also the folks that feed their chickens hamburger!

Despite the large number of attendees and limited parking, it was everything it was advertised to be; fun and entertaining (I learned that chickens love raw hamburger.  Who knew?).  I had so much fun that I am certain I will be back again next year.  If you are interested in keeping a few chickens of your own, I suggest you stop “brooding” and “laying” around, get off your “tail” and start checking out the zoning laws in your areas.  Then, mark your calendar for next year’s tour.  The Funky Chicken Coop tour is an “egg-ceptionally” good time for you and your whole “brood”!

(Sorry for the bad chicken jokes but I couldn’t resist)!

Heat Loving Veggies for the Texas Garden – Patty Leander

Jay’s enthusiasm for horticulture is infectious, and I could not resist his invitation to contribute a guest post to his interesting and well-organized blog.  Growing vegetables is my favorite horticulture-related activity and like many a gardener I am addicted to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat that comes my way each season.

Patty and I in her garden

We endured a hellacious drought last summer – not our first, not our last – yet winter and spring have brought much anticipated renewal, for both garden and gardener. The drought has reminded us of the importance of mulch, efficient irrigation and planting the right plant at the right time. It’s not even a bad idea to think of summer as a dormant time in the vegetable garden, but for those who are not deterred by rain deficits, sun, heat and sweat I’d like to highlight a few Texas-tough vegetables to fill the summer gap: 

 

 

Okra can be a little "prickly" to some gardeners. if okra gives you the "itch" simply wear gloves and a long sleeve shirt when harvesting. Photo by Bruse Leander

Okra – This quintessential heat lover is first on my list.  Smooth, ribbed, long, short, green or red, I have never tried a variety that I didn’t like.  Okra seed can be planted once the soil has warmed (70-80º), usually April or May in Central Texas.  It will reach maturity (4-6 feet tall) in approximately two months and picking will be easier if you space it at least 2 feet apart – and once it starts producing you will be picking almost every day!  In fact the secret to tender okra is to check your plants daily and harvest pods when they are only 3-5” long. And unlike those temperamental heirloom tomatoes, heirloom okra varieties grow like champs without much coddling or cajoling at all.  ‘Clemson Spineless’, ‘Emerald’ and ‘Hill Country Heirloom Red’ are available from Baker Creek Seeds (www.rareseeds.com). I know of two open-pollinated varieties with Texas roots that deserve mention.  ‘Beck’s Big’, a giant okra with fat pods, introduced in 1968 by organic trailblazer Malcolm Beck of San Antonio, and my personal favorite, ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’, a smooth, dark green variety carefully selected over several years for branching and productivity by two of my favorite gardeners, the late George and Mary Stewart of Houston. Both okras are available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com). Okra plants have tiny, mostly inconspicuous spines that cause an annoying itch, so be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting pods.

 Grilled Okra

Not sure what to do with your okra bounty? Try it grilled: toss whole, 3-4” pods in olive oil, season with salt and pepper and toss them on the grill. Grill 10-15 minutes, until pods are tender and slightly charred.  Yum!

A plump pod full of Colossus Crowder peas. Photo by Bruce Leander

Southern Peas – These legumes go by many names – cowpeas, field peas, black-eyed peas – but no matter what you call them they can take the Texas heat. They also taste delicious, produce beautiful blossoms, and can be used as a cover crop to build nitrogen and organic matter in the soil.  Two old-fashioned varieties for summer cover crops are ‘Red Ripper’ and ‘Iron and Clay’.  For fresh-eating I am partial to ‘Purple Hull’ and crowder peas (so called because the peas are crowded in the pod) such as ‘Mississippi Silver’ and ‘Colossus’.  Heavenly Seed (www.heavenlyseed.net) is a small, family-owned seed company located in Anderson, South Carolina, that offers a superb selection of southern peas.

Asparagus, or long beans, can grow to 18" and are great in a stir fry. Photo by Bruce Leander

Asparagus BeansAlso known as yard long beans, this heat-loving relative of the cowpea is popular for use in Asian stir-fries. Most varieties are vigorous vines that require a sturdy fence or trellis. Harvest when pods are about 15-18” long, before beans begin to swell. ‘Red Noodle’, available from both Baker Creek and Heavenly Seed, produces long, burgundy pods that can be sliced and sautéed or stir-fried.

 

Malabar spinach is a great green for the Texas heat. Photo by Bruce Leander

Molokhia and Malabar Spinach – Lettuce and other greens thrive in most of Texas from fall to early spring, but home-grown salad greens are hard to come by as summer approaches. As the days grow long and hot many gardeners turn to Malabar spinach as a warm weather salad green. Another summertime option is a popular Middle Eastern green called molokhia, sometimes referred to as Egyptian spinach. The nutritious, grassy tasting leaves are plucked from fast-growing, multi-stemmed plants that grow 4-6 feet tall. Young leaves and shoots can be added to salads or sandwiches and older leaves can be cooked or sautéed and added to soups or casseroles. A reliable seed source for both of these greens is Kitazawa Seed Company (www.kitazawaseed.com).

Molokhia leaves and seed pods. Photo by Bruce Leander

Crimson Glory Antique Rose

A cloeup of the antique rose "Crimson Glory" in my front bed

When we bought our house it was almost devoid of ornamental plantings.  The previous owner must not have been much of a gardener.  However, he did leave behind a truly remarkable and beautiful rose called Climbing Crimson Glory.

A couple of months ago I did an article for Texas Gardener about how drought resistant antique roses have proven to be.  As you will see in the attached pictures, Crimson Glory is a testament to their durability.  Not only did this rose survive last year’s drought, it has produced more flowers this year than ever before.  AND … it did all of this in spite of the fact that I had just dug it up and moved it in March of last year.  Now that is durable!

Crimson Glory is not a true climber.  It is what some call a “mannerly climber”.  It has fairly thick canes that can be 12’ to 15’ long.  Instead of wrapping around an arbor, this rose is best tied along the top of a fence.  And that is exactly why I moved it.  It had been in front of our porch for about ten years.  However, last spring, I built a picket fence.  I knew this rose would be the perfect choice to put in front of the new white fence.  As you can see, it loves its new location and does not seem to mind that I ripped it out a place that it was pretty happy in.

The deep red color and lemon-y scent makes Crimson Glory my favorite rose in my garden

According to Mike Shoup (owner of The Antique Rose Emporium), both Crimson Glory and Climbing Crimson Glory are a great choice for anyone that wants a rose that “looks and smells like a rose is supposed to”.  With its deep red, velvety petals and bright yellow stamens, Climbing Glory will be a stand out in any garden.  Plus it’s beautiful, lemony scent makes it the perfect addition to those romantic, hand cut bouquets that can only come from a home garden.

Don't the deep red flowers look levely against the white picket fence?

If you have avoided roses in the past because they require so much pruning and spraying, give antique varieties a try.  These roses require less maintenance and trimming than modern hybrids.  They thrive in full sun and can with stand the worst drought in Texas history.  All they ask from you is about an inch of water per week and two good mulching a year with a high quality, finished compost.  Give them a try and I am certain you will be as impressed with their performance as this old gardener!

Rattlesnakes and Roses

The "Belinda's Dream" roses that Chris was dead heading when he found the snake

People aren’t the only animals that like to be in the garden during spring.  The following post/tip comes from my friend and master of horticulture Chris Corby (owner of Texas Gardener magazine).  His advice is a gentle reminder to keep your eyes peeled when you are in the garden this time of year.

Snakes in the Graden-While deadheading one of our Belinda’s Dream roses (which, by the way, are just gorgeous this year), my good dog Katie found a large rattlesnake.  Mind you, I believe that all snakes are useful and have a purpose in nature—just not in my rose bed three feet from my boots!  Anyway, I dispatched this four-footer with one shot to the head.  My Dad taught me not to waste anything you shoot so I skinned the snake and cooked the meat for the grandkids.  I then sent the skin to my brother in Corpus Christi to go on his new cowboy hat.  The moral of this story is “Be on the look-out for snakes this spring and don’t kill one unless it is threatening you”.  And, if you do shot one, don’t let it go to waste. —Chris Corby

The rattlesnake in the roses-RIP!

This is a great tip.  Last year, I was “attacked” by a very large and very unhappy chicken (or rat) snake while picking tomatoes.  I also personally know two people in Brenham that were bitten by copperheads in their yards last year.  Our unseasonably warm weather has the snakes out a little earlier than usual.  They also appear to be a little more active than is normal for this time of year.  So wear your boots and take a stick with you each time you go into the garden.

 

After publishing Texas Gardener for 31 years, Chris is full of great gardening tips.  If you don’t already subscribe to his magazine, you should.  As an added benefit, subscribers receive his weekly newsletter called “Seeds” that gives you a new tip every week and covers timely topics of interest to those of us that love to grow things.

How and When to Harvest Bulbs

A couple of weekends ago several of my friends from A&M met me at my “bulb honey hole” for a little “bulb rustling”.  I have written about my bulb “honey hole” before.  It is an abandoned home site that was tended by an incredible gardener for 80 plus years.  For a long time I was reluctant to share.  However, I have now harvested so many bulbs for my own gardens that I felt it would be great to let a few of my buddies in on my secret.

The Bulb Hunters. From left: Mengmeng Gu, Cynthia Mueller, Sally White, Me, Michal Hall, Charlie Hall, Karin Wallace, Russ Wallace

Karin and Russ Wallace, Mengmeng Gu, Charlie and MiChal Hall, and Cynthia Mueller joined Sally and I for a very fun filled morning of digging in the dirt.  Like I mentioned before, this homestead was tended by an incredible gardener for some 80 plus years.  Because of her work, the soil in the yard is the most perfect organic, rich, sandy loam I have ever seen.  This rich, sandy loam has allowed the bulbs that were planted many years ago to thrive and divide with abandon.  Because of this, there are now enough Italicus narcissus (Narcissus tazetta, “Italicus”), Red Oxbloods (Rhodophialia bifida)and Bulbispermum crinums (Crinum bulbispermum) to stock several nurseries.

When harvesting bulbs, it is fairly important to be aware of when they bloom.  Almost all bulbs flower at a certain time and then send up their foliage after the flowers fade.  This foliage is very important as it is what is gathering the sunlight that the bulbs need to make the carbohydrate storage that the flowers will need during bloom season.  Due to this, the foliage needs to stay in place until it browns. 

Me, Mengmeng and Russ harvesting Oxbloods

Each of the bulbs we were harvesting bloom at different times.  If we were completely reliant on the calendar, our weekend of March 31 was really only the “optimal time” to harvest the Oxbloods.  Since they bloomed in early fall, their foliage has been “bulking up” their bulbs for the past six months.  Because of this, the oxbloods can be dug and have their tops removed immediately.  You can then dry them a little in the sun and store them in a cool dark place for later planting.

Charlie Hall and Karin Wallace harvesting Italicus narcissus

Since the narcissus just bloomed in January, they need to have about half of their tops removed and then be replanted as soon as possible.  The remaining “tops” will allow them to continue the photosynthesis required for their January bloom.  If the bulbs do not get enough carbs stored up, they may not bloom the first year after transplanting.  That is ok.  Just keep watering them and wait until the following season.

Karin and Russ Wallace show off a massive crinum bulb

Crinums (especially bulbispermum) are kind of a different animal.  Bulbispermum can bloom at anytime.  The varieties here usually bloom for me about three times a year.  My good friend Dr. Bill Welch likes to say that as far as he knows, no crinum has ever died.  This is a very appropriate statement when it comes to this very durable bulb.  Because of their durability, they can be harvested about anytime.  Just cut their foliage in half and replant within a week or so and they will be fine.  Crinum bulbispermum is native to southern Africa.  They like wet, marshy areas but they can also withstand drought.  Like all bulbs, they prefer a loose, well drained soil but they grow very well in clay.  Basically, they will grow anywhere.  If you are looking for a bullet proof plant, then this is it.  There are several colorations of this family of crinum.  The ones on this homestead are either almost pure white or red and white stripped.  The stripped variety is often called “milk and wine” crinums.

A "milk and wine" crinum from my "honey hole"

All and all, it was a perfect day.  The weather was great, the soil was loose and the mood was bright.  All of my friends got a whole bunch of wonderful bulbs and Sally and got a great memory of horticultural fun shared with people we love.  Thanks to all of my friends for a wonderful day!

Mutant Bluebonnet-Fasciation

Below you will find a picture of the most incredible and unusual bluebonnet that I have ever seen.  My best friend, Johnny Pickle, found this on his place just outside of Bellville,Texas.  It is the most unusual plant thing I have ever seen.  Now I know that bluebonnets often mutate.  I have seen pure white ones.  A “maroon” mutation is what allowed my friends at A&M to create the maroon and white variety.  However, this one is not a color mutation.  I don’t even know how to describe this.  It looks like about ten stems fused together that then created one massive flower head.  Truly incredible!

Incredible mutant bluebonnet on a ranch near Bellville, Texas

MYSTERY SOLVED- After writing this post, I sent the picture out to my friends in Extension at A&M  According to my friends Cynthia Mueller and Doug Welsh, this is rare but not unheard of.  In fact, this is the second photo like this they have seen this year.  This bluebonnet is suffering from a condition called fasciation.  Fasciation is literally translated to mean “bundling”.  Fasciation is caused by some sort of stress like physical damage, hormonal imbalance, virus, bacteria, insects or drought.  Now we had plenty of drought last year and that is probably what caused this.

Fasciation is very common in Celosia (cock’s comb) and those blooms are highly sought after.  Since fasciation is not a genetic mutation, you cannot save these seeds and plan on getting the same thing next year.