Celebrate the Bulbs of Fall!

All across Central Texas, Oxblood lilies (Rhodophialia bifida) are at the peak of their season.  For those of us that live in areas that were once part of Mr. Austin’s original colony, these red trumpet shaped flowers have announced the arrival of fall for generations.

Oxbloods in my front bed

Here in Central Texas, no other bulb is as loved or celebrated in the fall as these Argentinian imports.  Sometime in the 1870’s the German immigrant/botanist/horticulturist Peter Oberwetter introduced these bulbs to the German speaking areas of the Texas Hill Country.  These bulbs were so pretty and so reliable that they quickly spread throughout Texas.  Now, thanks to the work of people like Chris Wiesinger and Dr. Bill Welch, oxbloods (and other heirloom bulbs) are becoming hugely popular throughout the entire Southern part of the U.S.

A mass of oxbloods on an abandoned homesite. Photo from The Southern Bulb Company

Even though oxbloods are the most common fall blooming bulb in Central Texas, they are not the only ones.  Two members of the of the Lycoris genus (Lycoris radiata and Lycoris aurea) also produce prolific blooms during the early days of the fall season.  Spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) are my personal favorite of the fall blooming bulbs.  All Lycoris bloom on top of a single, unadorned stalk after the first fall rains.  Because of this they are often called “Naked Ladies” or the “Surprise Lily”.  How can you not love their big, red, exotic looking heads?  Their curly petals burst open and arch backward to release long, curved stamens that look like the most gorgeous eye lashes imaginable.  I truly love these flowers!

These exotic looking  Japanese beauties have also been popular here for a very long time.  While they do not reproduce as rapidly as the oxbloods, Lycoris are tough and reliable.  These flowers are beautiful in their own right, but a mass of them is truly stunning.  If you want to see some of the best pictures of spider lilies that I have ever seen, be sure and catch this month’s issue of Southern Living.  My friend Dr. Bill Welch has an excellent article about them and the supporting photography is exceptional.

A stunning mass of Spiderlilies. Photo from The Southern Bulb Company

The blooms of the fall blooming bulbs of Central Texas last for only a couple of very short weeks.  Since they make terrible cut flowers and are almost impossible to dry, get outside in this amazing weather and enjoy them now.  These flowers make these fleeting early days of the Texas autumn truly special.

Since these flowers last for such a short time, be sure to give them ample water while they bloom.  This will extend their life by a few more precious hours. If you don’t currently have your own (or enough) fall blooming bulbs, contact my buddy Chris Wiesinger at The Southern Bulb Company.  Chris knows more about these charming antiques than anyone I know.  His bulbs are truly the best available anywhere.

This post has been shared on the Homestead Barn Hop and the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to check in on other homesteaders and organic gardeners!

P.S. Bulb blooms aren’t the only way I know fall has finally come to my garden.  Each year around this time I begin to see Green Tree Frogs all around the beds and borders of my property.  I don’t know where these guys hide the rest of the year, but the cool fall weather seems to erase their shyness.

This cute little fellow thought the cushion of one of our rocking chairs was a great place to hide.

See MOH on TV This Weekend!

Nine months ago, the folks at KLRU’s Central Texas Gardener (CTG) came and filmed my potager for an upcoming fall gardening segment on CTG. Well, that “upcoming time” is finally here!  I am so excited to have this opportunity and I want to say a great big thank you to Linda Lehmusvirta and crew for all of the hard work they did on this.  Click on the link below to watch it now.

Central Texas Gardener now airs on five Texas public television stations and is coming soon to New Mexico. Check the station link listed below for the most recent local schedule.

KLRU / 18-1, Austin

  • noon & 4:00 p.m. Saturdays
  • 9:00 a.m. Sundays (repeat)

KLRU-HD, Austin

  • noon & 4:00 p.m. Saturdays
  • 9:00 a.m. Sundays (repeat)

KLRU-Q / 18-3, Austin

  • 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays
  • 7:00 a.m. Wednesdays
  • 9:30 a.m. Fridays

KAMU, College Station

  • 5:00 p.m. Saturdays

KNCT, Killeen

  • 1:30 p.m. Saturdays
  • 5:30 p.m. Sundays

KLRN, San Antonio

  • 11 a.m. Saturdays

KWBU, Waco

  • 3:30 p.m. Saturdays
  • 12:30 p.m Thursdays

KPBT, Midland (Permian Basin)

  • 12:30 p.m. Mondays

KBDI, Denver

  • 2:00 p.m. Sundays
  • 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays

Stephen F. Austin Plant Sale in Nacogdoches

A lovely hydrangea in the Mize Arboretum

If you are going to be anywhere close to East Texas  on October 6, you really need to take time to swing by the gardens at Stephen F. Austin University.   The SFA Gardens at Stephen F. Austin State University will host its annual Fabulous Fall Festival Plant Sale from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. Saturday, October 6, 2012 at the SFA Pineywoods Native Plant Center, 2900 Raguet St.

A wide variety of hard-to-find, “Texas tough” plants will be available, including Texas natives, heirlooms, tropicals, perennials, shrubs, trees, and exclusive SFA introductions.  Most of the plants are extensively trialed in the gardens before being offered to the public and most are produced by the SFA Gardens staff and volunteers.

A lovely double pink althea at SFA

This popular event benefis the SFA Mast Arboretum, Pineywoods Native Plant Center, Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden, Gayla Mize Garden, and educational programs hosted at the gardens.  Combine your plant buying with a tour.  The arboretum and gardens are absolutely beautiful and the weather should be wonderful.

Since I have several plants in my yard that came from this sale I can attest to the fact that you will be buying incredibly healthy and hearty plants that are sure to thrive for you.  Your support will ensure that the team at SFA will be able to continue providing educational programs that reach over 15,000 students (ages 1 to 100) on a yearly basis.

Come early and bring three things; a wagon, a camera and your questions.  There will be staff on hand to provide you all of the tips and tricks you need to make your plants thrive and answer any other gardening questions you may have. For more information, call (936) 468-4404, or visit www.sfagardens.sfasu.edu for a list of available plants.

My wife with Greg Grant in front of one of the many camellia’s at SFA

Planting the 2012 Spring Potager

March 15 is the ultimate go date in the Zone 9 garden.  At this point there is an almost 0% chance of a freeze.  Because of this you can now plant just about everything.  I have to admit, I am a little behind the curve this year.  The rain, while much needed and much appreciated, has seemed to come at times that have interfered with my time off.  Who would believe that after last’s year’s drought, I would be delayed in my planting by rain?

A "found" Cherokee rose that I propogated from cuttings now spills over the fence of my potager

As soon as it dries up a little, I am going to plant the potager.  I love selecting and designing with the plants that are going to go into the potager.  Each year I replant it gets a little easier.  I learn which plants do well and I also figure out their size and scale when mature.

A lot of my outside beds are now filled with perennials.  I have lots of salvia, roses and dianthus.  I also have lots of herbs like rosemary and Mexican Mint Marigold (Tagetes lucida).  There are also Egyptian Walking Onions, larkspur and hollyhocks.  The only thing that will need to be pulled this spring is the garlic.  In the open spaces in these outside beds I am going to plant several herbs.  On a recent visit to Texas Specialty Cut Flowers, my wife bought several varieties of peppers.  I have also grown some pimento peppers and Napoleon Sweet Bell peppers from seed.  These will go toward the back of the beds with a few varieties of basil that we have saved from seed.  Along the front, we will be planting parsley, oregano, lavender and thyme.

Salvia and daiseys in last years potager

The center beds are going to be all for vegetables.  The look of the triangular beds will not change dramatically.  As a “spiller”, I will replace the spinach and lettuce with Contender Bush beans.  Beans are a pretty quick crop so when they fade around June 1, I will pull them up and replant with purple hulled black-eyed peas. For my “filler” I will divide the shallots that are there now and leave a few behind the beans so they can divide for replanting in the fall.  Finally, I will plant Black From Tula heirloom tomatoes that I have grown from seed as my “thriller” on the trellises in the center of the beds.

The last bed in the potager is the center diamond shaped bed.  Right now it is full of byzantine gladiolus.  Once these bloom and fade I will plant a lovely red okra.  The okra needs to be planted in June anyway so this work out well for me.  I selected okra for this bed because it grows a pretty, nice, tall and structural plant.  Okra is in the hibiscus family.  Because of this, it produces very large and lovely flowers that look just like hibiscus.

The hibiscus like flowers of okra

Right now is a great time to be outside.  The martins have returned, the bluebonnets are in full bloom and the fruit trees are in bud.  Why not get outside this week and plant your garden?  Below is a list of some of the veggies that you can plant now.

The $70 Vegetable Garden

I recently read the 2009 survey results of the gardening world by the National Gardening Association (http://www.garden.org/).  One of the stats that I found very interesting was the amount of money the average person reportedly spends on their food garden.  According to the NGA survey, the average vegetable gardener only spends $70 per year on their garden.  Now I realize that I am not the average gardener, but $70?  Really?  I spend an average of $30 per month on just compost.  So this got me thinking.  Could I create a vegetable garden (on paper) with just $70 worth of supplies?

There really is nothing better than home grown tomatoes

To do this, I had to make some assumptions.  Using the NGA data, I decided to be average.  According to their report the average vegetable garden in the US is 600 square feet.  Using this I decided to have a 21’ X 30’ (I know that is 630 square feet, but go with me) virtual garden.  This garden would contain 4-30 foot rows.  Each row would be 3 feet wide and there would be 3 feet wide walk paths between the rows.  In this space I would plant the Top Ten vegetables grown in US gardens (based on results from the same survey).  Those vegetables are tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, beans, carrots, summer squash, onions, hot peppers, lettuce and peas.  I also assume that this $70 experiment only covers the spring garden.  Finally, since I garden organically, my $70 garden will use organic principals as well.

Below are the four rows that I have designed.

Row 1 –English peas the 10th most grown veggie in the American garden.  Normally I plant them in January.  For this garden, I am going to recommend putting them on Feb. 1.  A little late here, but this is just an experiment and they will probably still produce when planted this late (especially if you live north of Dallas).  Carrots can go in at the same time.  Beans are a little less cold hardy so I am going to virtually plant them Feb. 15.

All of these veggies will be planted by seeds.  The beans and peas will be spaced at 6” and I will get three rows in each three foot bed.  To plant this many beans and peas, you will need to buy two packs of seed for each.  I selected “Contender” bush beans from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  They were $2 per pack so the beans will cost $4.  I found 100 “Green Arrow Peas” from Seed Savers Exchange for $2.75. The carrots will be planted in a staggered grid plan at 4” spacing.  You will need 2 packs of seed for this many carrots.  Since the seeds are so tiny it is difficult to get just one seed per hole.  I chose “Danver” from Seed Savers Exchange.  The two packs were $5.50.

Row 2 –Around here, we plant our onion sets in November or December.  For this garden, we are going to assume that we planted 300 10-15Y onions in November.  They are stagger planted 6” apart in three rows that are 20’ long.  This would require two bunches of sets and would have set us back about $6.  Now 300 is a lot of onions.  However, I love them and they keep well so I also plant a lot.  I planted the onions in the middle of the row.  This leaves two 5’ beds on either side.

In both of these beds I am planting lettuce from seed.  I love lettuce and there are a ton of varieties.  All do well in the cool season so you can plant whatever variety you choose.  I always plant two different varieties of leaf lettuce.  To plant beds this size, you will need about four packs of seeds.  At $1.50 each, that is another $6.

Row 3 – This whole row is dedicated to cucurbits.  30 feet is a lot of room for our squash and cucumbers,  especially since they are both so productive.  Each of these plants need about 3’ of space.  I will plant six  hills of squash (2-yellow crook neck, 2 zucchini, and two patty pan).  I will then plant four trellises of Poinsett cucumbers.  I grow these every year and they are awesome!  They are very productive and are great as slicers and for pickling.  I build thee-legged trellises for them out of cedar limbs.  Four trellises will allow us to have 12 vines.  This will be more than enough.  For this row we will be using 4 packets of seeds at $2.50 each so the whole row will cost just $5.

Row 4 –Tomatoes are the stars of most summer gardens.  They are the number one grown vegetable in the home garden. For the last row of our gardenwe will buy and plant six tomatoes, two Jalepenos and two Bell pepper plants.   I usually buy plants because it is much easier than planting from seed in January and then nursing to April.  I always plant my tomatoes and peppers the first week in April.  I usually make sure and plant at least two plants of each tomato variety that I select.  My favorite for slicing tomato is an heirloom called “Black From Tulia”.  I also usually plant a cherry variety and a grape variety.  We also love Romas so we grow a yellow variety called appropriately “Yellow Roma”.  I do not have a favorite Bell or Jalepeno variety.  I typically plant whatever they have at the nursery.  I buy well established tomatoes in quart containers.  Each of these usually cost about $4 a piece so you are going to have to part with $24 for this row.  I buy peppers in 4’ pots and they are usually about $1.5 a piece.

My little experiment has proven that you can have an average garden with the ten most common plants for under $70.  Including the 8.25% Texas sales tax, my total came out to $64.13.  That leaves enough for 5 bags of compost (which I highly recommend).  I know this doesn’t account for water or mulch or about a million others things you can spend your gardening dollars on, but it does prove that if you have decent soil you can have a very nice garden for a small amount of money.  According to the NGA survey, this $70 garden will produce $600 dollars worth of food.  So, this garden is good for both your health and your pocket book!  February in Central Texas means it is time again to go outside and get dirty!  Happy gardening y’all!

P.S.  If gardening stats fire you up then you can read my full analysis of the results of the NGA survey in next issue of Texas Gardener.

Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani)

Maximilian Sunflowers lining the entrance of Wldseed Farms in Fredericksberg

As you drive along the high ways and by ways of our great state this fall, notice all of the native plants that are in full bloom.  Fall is a great time for many native flowers and perennials.  One of the most stunning and prolific of the fall blooming Texas natives is the Maximilian Sunflower.  It is hard to drive anywhere in Texas right now and not see this stately and beautiful plant.  Maximilian Sunflowers produce stalks that can reach 8’ to 10’ in height.  The tall stalks can be completely covered with bright yellow flowers from their base to their tip.  These flowers produce tons of little seeds that ensure that they, and many species of wildlife, will survive until next year.

Close up of the heads of these beautiful flowers

Maximilian sunflowers are actually a perennial plant.  Even though they flower and disperse their seeds like an annual, their roots will survive even the harshest of Texas winters.  Due to this combination of perennial roots and very productive seed heads, Maximilian Sunflowers often develop into very large and thick colonies of plants.  The yellow flowers of these colonies result in fabulous drifts of yellow that paint the fence rows and ditches of fall rural Texas.

The stalk of my Maximilian right before it bloomed, This stalk is about 9′ tall

Even though Maximilian’s are native, they do very well in cultivation.  I have this plant in my beds and so do many of my friends.  It is a great pass along plant.  In fact, that is how I got mine.  My friend Cynthia Mueller brought me some shoots from her established colony this previous spring.  Cynthia has a very beautiful stand that she divides every year and shares with all that want them.

Maximillians in the front border of my potager

Since Maximilian Sunflowers are a native plant, they will do well in low water situations.  However, if you want them to be truly spectacular, water them just like any other bedding plant (about 1” of water per week).  They love full sun and will grow in just about any soil type.  Because of their tall foliage, you may be required to stake or prune them.  If pruning, trim them down to about 2’ or 3’ in late June or early July.  This will keep the plant from growing much over four feet.  When pruned in this manner they can make a very attractive hedge or border. Also, since Maximilians are sunflowers, they last forever as a cut flower in your fall bouquets.

Maximilian’s in mixed Fall bouquet from my beds

My wife and I recently visited Wildseed Farms in Fredericksberg.  They use Maximilian Sunflowers extensively throughout their property and the results are beautiful.  While on their property, I noticed Maximilian used as a stand-alone specimen, in stunning combinations and in mass plantings.  Each use of the plant was very appealing to the eye.   This large scale, fall blooming plant will reward you with beautiful flowers for years to come and, as an added bonus, this tough and reliable fall perennial will draw in several species of birds, moths and butterflies to your garden.  If you would like some for yourself you can order on-line (or visit) Wildseed Farms or  get a start from a friends garden.  This lovely perennial will reward with years and years of reliable blooms.

Guara (Guara lendheimeri)

Pink guara growing in my front bed

If you are looking for a plant that is tough as nails and blooms from spring through fall, then guara may be a fit for your garden.  Gaura is a Texas native that loves full sun and tolerates drought.  I have learned to appreciate its drought tolerance this summer.  Right now, I am pouring the water to my beds.  While it is keeping things alive, nothing is thriving.  Nothing that is, except the guara.

The guara that I have is a pink variety known as Onagraceae  Guara lindheimeri.  This variety grows natively in the Texas Hill country.  As the name implies, guara was first “discovered” by Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer.  Lindheimer is known as the father of Texas botany.  He worked as the first botanist in the state primarily between 1843 and 1852.  Because of his extensive life-long work with plants, his name has now been assigned to 48 species and sub species of plants.

The delicate pink flowers of my guara

There are 20 species of guara that are native to the United States.  This perennial can be found in Texas, Louisiana, and most of the Gulf South.  Gaura is an upright growing plant that grows in clumps that can be 2’ to 4’ high and just as wide.  The leaves are long and skinny with slightly serrated leaves.  The plant produces long, thin stalks that are often red to burgundy in color.  The inch long flowers have four petals and grow along these stems.  The flowers can range in color from white to deep magenta and they drop after full bloom.  Some varieties bloom white and then turn to pink in a single day.  Many times, the flowers grow on the ends of the stems.  When viewed from a distance, the flowers on the terminal ends of the stalks appear to be tiny butterflies “dancing” above the plant.  This gives rise to its common name; Whirling Butterflies.

Guara is very easy to grow from transplants.  Plant in early spring in full sun or partial shade.  It prefers rich, well drained soil and it will tolerate alkaline conditions.  It grows quickly and by early summer you will have a fairly large and attractive plant.  By fall, your guara will be a large full clump of “Whirling Butterflies”.

Guara can reseed but it is not an aggressive self seeder.  You can also divide guara once it has been established for several years.  However, it develops a deep tap root and this can make transplanting a bit of a challenge.

A lovely white form at the Spoetzel Home in Schulenberg, Texas.

Gaura is an attractive long blooming perennial that is perfect for the Texas border.  Its open, airy foliage is attractive even when not in bloom.  It flowers prolifically from spring through fall and butterflies and humming birds love the small flowers.  While it may not be the flashiest plant in the garden, it is tough and reliable.  The way it has continued to thrive in spite of the worst drought in our history has convinced me to use more of this survivor in my beds.  Why don’t you try some in yours?

Eight Ways to Stretch Your Garden Dollars

Right now, times are tough and everyone is looking for ways to save money.  Gardeners are no exception.  Gardening is a lot of fun and almost 5 million Americans practice some sort of gardening at their homes.  However, if you are not careful, your little garden can wind up costing you a lot of money.  Whether you grow vegetables or ornamentals, these timely tips will allow you to get the most out of your garden without draining your bank account.

A bunch of narcissus and oxbloods given to me by a friend

Publicize – If you love to garden, tell people.  You will be surprised how much stuff people will give you once the word is out that you like to grow stuff.   I have a friend that inherited an old home.  The previous owners were avid gardeners and the abandoned yard is full of heirloom plants and bulbs.  When she found out that I love old fashioned plants, she told me I could have anything I could dig up.  So far I have harvested literally hundreds of daffodil, spider lily, oxblood lily and crinum bulbs.  I have also transplanted some yaupons.  I am going back this fall to get some flowering quince and crepe myrtles. 

My row garden with hay mulch

Mulch – If you have read much of my blog, you know I am a big fan of mulch.  Mulch reduces the amount of water you use, so lower water bills.  It also suppresses weeds, so less is spent on herbicides.  Mulch can be expensive if you buy it in bags.  That’s why I never do that.  I buy my mulch in bulk.  Each year I buy three different types of mulch.  I get hardwood mulch from my local landfill.  I drive up in my truck and they load me up.  I pay a very modest 1 cent per pound for this mulch.  I use this hardwood mulch in my flower beds in the early spring.  I buy it then because the “mulch” that is in the landfill has generally been sitting there composting since fall.  So, if you buy in early spring, you get mulch that already has a good percentage of it that has already turned to compost.

I also buy mushroom compost in bulk.  I get mine delivered from a local firm.  While it is a little pricey initially, it is the best money I spend all year.  My last load of mushroom compost cost me $320 for a ten cubic yard dump truck load.  While it is technically compost, I use it much like you would use mulch.  I practice no till gardening in my kitchen garden.  I simply put several inches of this on top of my beds either right before or after planting.  Even though it is pre-composted, it continues to break down in the garden and supply vital nitrogen and other essential nutrients to the plants.  It also suppresses weeds and conserves moisture. 

I also use a lot of hay as mulch in my vegetable gardens.  Hay can be expensive if you buy the little square bales.  However, you can usually find round bales for anywhere from $50 to $80 and the farmer will usually deliver.  A round bale contains as much hay as 10-12 square bales.  When you buy hay or straw to use as mulch, be sure to ask the farmer if it has been treated with any herbicides.  Some of the herbicides sprayed today can linger in the hay and will kill your vegetables if used as mulch.

Several trays of azelia cuttings that I helped a friend of mine prepare

Propagate – Propagation is by far the cheapest way to increase your plant material outside of someone giving you plants.  Propagation is generally pretty easy.  A quick Google search will provide you with very good instructions and very good videos to watch so you can see exactly how it is done.  Some plants are incredibly easy to propagate.  Roses are one of these.  Other plants that are very easy are coleus, sweet potato vine, lantana, coral honeysuckle and many more.  Also, all of the bulbs that naturalize here can be divided every two or three years.  Simply dig them up in the fall, pull them apart and replant.

An old "cowboy bathtub" repurposed as a planter

Reuse – My wife and I are “junkers”.  We love going to garage and estate sales.  We find a lot of very useful things for the garden at very cheap prices at these sales.  Almost all of my gardening tools came from estate sales.  So did my big tiller.  Another thing that we are always on the lookout for are old galvanized buckets.  We use these as planters.  We also buy almost every terra cota pot that we find.

Compost – If you don’t have a compost pile, start one.  Compost is truly an amazing gift to your garden.  It is easy to make and it does so much for your plants and your soil.  There are a million ways to compost, so pick one and just do it.  I make my own compost.  However, I just don’t generate enough to meet all of my needs.  However, I garden on a fairly large scale.  If you have a small garden or if you only grow in containers, you can probably make enough free fertilizer and soil conditioner from your kitchen and yard waste to meet your needs.

Be creative – I love to tackle little landscaping projects around my house.  I would do a lot more if landscaping materials weren’t so expensive.  Since I don’t have a large budget to support my hobby, I am always looking at magazines and other landscapes to find cheap alternatives for my landscaping designs.  A perfect example of this happened the other day.  While at a garage sale, my wife found a HUGE box full of those old glass insulators from electric lines.  We bought the whole lot for $20.  There were well over 100 insulators in the box.  We are going put Christmas lights inside them and use them to line one of our paths.  We will have a very cute and cool night light set up in the garden and all it will wind up costing us less than $50.

My wife enjoying a Framer's Market in Tulsa, Ok

Buy off season – Right now is the best time to buy perennials.  Nurseries that have not sold all of their spring stock now have whatever is left DRAMATICALLY marked down.  You will find sales of up 75% off at most nurseries and garden centers right now in the hottest part of the year.  Sure the plants you buy will need a little extra TLC to get them safely into the fall, but for 75% off, the extra TLC is worth it.

Sell your harvest – Finally, if you do so well in your frugal garden that you can’t use all that you grow, sell it!  That’s right.  Sell the bounty from your garden and actually make a little on your hobby.  Right now, the demand for locally grown, organic produce and flowers has never been higher.  Just about every city and town in America now has a Farmer’s Market of some kind.  Booth rent at these markets is usually very low and you will be surprised at how much you can sell.

Castor Bean-Not a Bean At All

Who would think that these plain little flowers would produce the deadliest plant toxin on earth?

Castor Bean plants (Ricinus communis) are the source of two of the nastiest substances on earth.  The first, is castor oil.  YUCK!  This nasty substance has been used to treat “digestive issues” for a long time.  The taste of this stuff is so bad that it will make full grown men cry.  I only had to take it once, but it is a memory that still haunts me.  The other really bad thing that comes from this plant is ricin.  Ricin is a by product of the process used to make castor oil.  It is the most toxic substance on earth derived from a plant.  This stuff is so toxic that a TINY amount of refined ricin was used to kill a Bulgarian defector in 1978.  Georgi Markov was “shot” with a modified umbrella in the back of his leg with a tiny pellet the size of a pinhead.  This tiny pellet had two holes drilled through it to form a tiny “X’ through the center.  That space was filled with ricin.  Within three days, that tiny, tiny amount of ricin had killed Georgi.  Even though the ricin was not detected until after the autopsy, it would not have mattered.  There is no antidote for ricin poisoning.  Here is another scarey fact.  Quantities of refined ricin were found in caves in Afghanistan right after the invasion. 

If you decide to grow Castor Beans, you really need to be aware that every part of the plant is toxic.  This includes the stems, leaves and the seeds.  One bean (really a seed) is enough to kill a child.  Two or more will kill most adults.  If you have a dog that likes to chew plants, then don’t grow them where the dog can get to them.  I would also not grow them if there are small children in the vicinity.

These are the "spikey balls" that contain the seed. These dried pods are designed to stick to the fur of passing animals to add in dispersion.

I grow and love this dangerous plant at my house.  However, I have no pets or kids.  I love them for several reasons.  First, they are as lovely as they are dangerous.  Most varieites will grow over 6′ in a single season.  The large, eight lobed leaves provide a somewhat tropical effect.  This look is often difficult to obtain in locations that have high light and low water.  Castor Bean loves both of these conditions.  They also come in a wide range of colors.  Some varieties are a pale green, while others are very deep purple.  In fact, one of the most stunning plant combinations I have ever seen was a large mass of the purple variety growing behind a huge stand of thornless prickly pear cactus at Dr. Bill Welch’s weekend place in Washington County.

The flower of the Castor Bean is lovely but not that impressive.  The plant sends up spikes that develop small, pink flowers that attract a lot of pollenators.  This year, they seem to be drawing more yellow jackets than bees.  The base of the flower turns into a round, spikey ball.  This ball contains the very deadly seeds.  When the balls dry out, they fall to the ground.  The spikes are designed to attach to the fur of wandering critters.

The foliage of the Castor Bean is lovely. This large scale plant can be used to cover that "empty spot" in your garden.

Castor Beans are also incredibly easy to grow in our climates.  They love full sun, can take the heat and can survive low water once established.  Originally native to the Mediterranean Basin, Africa and India, their use as an ornamental has now allowed them to spread to most tropical areas in the world. 

Castor bean seeds are available from most seed companies.  I get mine from Baker Creek Seeds (rareseeds.com).  Plant the seeds about a half to one inch deep in full sun when the soil has warmed up to about 70 degrees.  They are fairly heavy feeders and like a rich soil thoroughly worked with compost.  They do take a while to germinate so be patient.  Water regularly to get them established.  Once the plant is about a foot tall, they will survive and thrive on 1 inch or less of water per week.  They get tall quickly so you may need to stake them.  Also, the large leaves are susceptible to wind damage.

Caster Beans have been grown in the south for a very long time.  My grandparents grew them and their grandparents probably did as well.  They are hardy, beautiful and a few plants can fill up a relatively large area in a garden with big, bold, vibrant foliage.  If you take care to plant these where curious pets and children can’t get to them, you will enjoy a lush, tropical look in the yard in the driest of times.

Bulb Hunting

This past Wednesday, I got a signed copy of Chris Wiesinger’s new book “Heirloom Bulbs for Today” from my friend Dr. Bill Welch.  Chris is the owner of the Southern Bulb Company and a true “Master of Horticulture”.  Since graduating from A&M he has quickly established himself as the leading expert on Southern heirloom bulbs.  His book is packed full of useful information about many of the heirloom bulbs that do really well in Texas and the Gulf South.  This lovely book is as entertaining as it is useful.  It is full of wonderful anecdotes about his bulb hunting expeditions. The photographs and illustrations are both beautiful and a great source for identifying the things you may dig up from time to time.  The text also gives you all of the information you need to harvest, plant and care for these living heirlooms.  If you are interested, you can find it on Amazon.  Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/Heirloom-Bulbs-Chris-Wiesinger/dp/193397995X

Grand Primos and Crinums at the Hueske Homestead

The timing of this book was very apropos.  Two days after receiving it, the weather was a balmy 74 degrees and I had the day off.  So, I decided to do a little bulb hunting of my own.  My wife and I are friends with a wonderful and generous woman that is the owner of an abandoned homestead. This place was the home of two sisters for almost 100 years.  Both were born in the house that still stands on the site.  The sisters were avid gardeners who loved and nurtured this piece of property for almost 80 years.  Their love of growing things is evidenced by the thousands of bulbs and corms that still bloom year round at the abandoned site.  Thanks to the generosity of my friend, I am able to go to the home site periodically and harvest bulbs.

Crinums around an old bird bath

I really cannot convey in words how many bulbs there are at this house.  Each time I visit I swear there are more bulbs there than when I last visited.  The choice is never what to harvest, it is always how much to harvest.  Today I made it easy on myself.  I brought a wheelbarrow and told myself that when it was full I would quit.

Upon my arrival, I stepped inside the gate and started digging.  The soil here is the most beautiful soil that I have ever found.  80 years of care can truly do wonders.  My shovel easily slid into this beautiful loam.  As I dug, I actually felt sorry for the bulbs that were going to have to leave this wonderful place for the hard black clay of my house.  Each turn of the shovel revealed clumps and clumps of bulbs.   After about an hour, I had harvested about 100 Grand Primo narcissus (Narcissus tazette ‘Grand Primo’) and an equal number of Oxblood Lilies (Rhodophiala bifida).  I also harvested about 50 crinums of an unknown variety. 

Time to go home

It is not really the optimal time to be gathering any of these bulbs. However, I have to harvest when my busy schedule allows.  The good thing about most of these old fashioned varieties is their hardiness.  Even though there are “better times” of the year to harvest them, you can realistically gather bulbs any time of the year.  The worst thing that usually happens if you harvest out of season is they do not bloom the first season they are transplanted.  That is a price I am willing to pay for the access to these living heirlooms. 


Like I mentioned before, there is definitely a right time to harvest bulbs.  For best results, you want to harvest (or divide) bulbs after their foliage has all died back.  This happens at different time for different bulbs. Grand Primo will bloom in late January and early February in our part of the world.  However, the foliage will stay bushy and green until June in some cases.  Bulbs need this foliage to stay in place as long as possible.  The foliage does the photosynthesis for the plant which the bulb then stores to produce next year’s blooms.  Spider Lilies (Lycoris  radiata) and  Oxblood Lilies (Rhodophiala bifida) are fall blooming bulbs that produce foliage that stays green for up to six months.  Because of this, it is a good idea to mark these bulbs so you will remember what you are digging when the time comes.


Oxbloods and Grand Primos divided and ready to plant

When you dig up your bulbs, you want to be careful and not cut them.  For that reason, dig at least six inches away from the dead clump.  I stick the entire blade of my shovel into the soil on an angle toward the bulbs.  I do this all the way around the clump.  This creates a bowl shaped hole.  Next, turn over the bowl shaped mound of dirt and start removing the soil.  You will find the bulbs in clumps.  Carefully separate the bulbs with your hands.  Try to preserve as many root as you can and discard any bulbs that are soft or damaged.

At this point you have a choice.  You can replant them immediately or you can dry and store them.  I always replant immediately.  However, if you want to save them then spread them out in the sun for a few days.  After they are dry, store them in any permeable bag.  You will want to keep them in a cool, dark, dry place until you are ready to replant or share them.


Crinums from the Hueske Homestead replanted in one of my beds

Heirloom bulbs are not too particular about how they are planted.  Basically, just get them in the ground deep enough to cover them.  One rule of thumb says that they should not be planted deeper than three bulb heights.  Corms (like iris and gladiolas) should not be planted as deep.  In fact, a lot of irises like to have the tops of their corms left exposed.  Also, some bulbs like byzantine gladiolas can be difficult to determine which end is up.  If that is the case, simply plant it sideways.

Nothing is more rewarding to me in the garden than growing things that have been shared with me.  My grand parents were all gone before I was old enough to take things from their gardens to remind me of them in mine.  However, thanks to the generosity of people I can still grow things from past gardeners who loved their plants as much as I love mine.  I am so happy to be the care taker of these heirloom bulbs that have now been passed down from two gardeners of another time to me.  I will think of these charming ladies each spring, summer and fall when the bulbs they enjoyed so long ago burst forth and brighten the time that I have left on this wonderful planet.