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An ill-timed Winter cold sets in…

… I mean in the air, and in my lungs, too. When not pathetically curled up in bed with Bronte novels on the iPad (well, Jane Eyre, at any rate, not Wuthering Heights; I remember finding Heathcliff a bit tiresome, although I may give him another try since it’s been so long), all my illin’ energy is going into making things for two up-racing deadlines, and so I’ve slacked off on writing in this space.

Here’s a deceptively placid photo of Christmas lights under frost cloth around the pool (in reality, the chilly desert wind is howling outside and we had to weight the flapping cloths down with rocks and empty flower pots). It’s our attempt at keeping the poor little cax and sux warm: our trees are being trimmed tomorrow — scheduled before we knew sub-freezing temps were forecast for the remainder of the week — and so the plants and pots had to come out into the open to avoid being crushed by amputated limbs. Thank heavens for old-school C9s, right?

Posted by Allison on Feb 1st 2011 | Filed in growing things,yard list | Comments (0)

Purple in the herbs

Our vegetable garden, like most vegetable gardens, requires continual effort.  For the majority of these domesticated types of plants, the desert is not a “shove it in the ground and it will grow” environment. Rabbits and diggy-beaked birds are constantly helping themselves, peak summer heat (now thankfully past) and dryness make frequent watering necessary.  So, we pick our battles: tomatoes, no; herbs and chiles, yes.

There are also typical ironies of gardening.  Plants that we cannot get to grow in spots we intend for them will flourish as volunteers in the most unlikely and sometimes inconvenient places.

Passiflora foetida (Photo A.Shock) >>

The passionflower, Passiflora foetida, is an example.  It will not grow on the fence we’d like it to hide; we’ve tried twice, it’s succumbed three times — once, after a miraculous Lazarus act accomplished by profligate watering, all the re-grown leaves were denuded by Gulf Fritillary caterpillars, which in the plant’s precarious resurgence, finished it off for good.  (However, this fall our garden is full of gorgeous orange butterflies).  Passionflower will grow untended — unwatered, even — between cracks in the pool deck, and, of course, in the vegetable garden, using the withered and sulky tomatoes as a support.  Currently three volunteer passionflower vines (spawned from the beleaguered “lazarus” individual’s seeds) are boisterously and inconveniently twining through our herb garden.  We let them; they seem so happy. Above is a photo of one blooming at dawn this morning, growing through another one of our garden success stories, the Mexican oregano, with its less extravagant clusters of tiny white flowers.

male Costa’s hummingbird, showing just a glint of purple behind his eye.  In the right light, his entire gorget would gleam grape (Photo A.Shock) >>

Whether we get produce to the table or not, the garden is great habitat — young lizards abound, and this morning there was a spiffy male Costa’s hummer gnatting over the oregano, his moustaches way purpler than the lavender Passionflower he hovered over.  Periodically he would rest, perching on a wire tomato cage, and sing his thin little wispy song, barely noticeable unless you know to listen for it.  It’s their time of year: they seem to be the most numerous hummers in the yard, zipping around from perch to perch, chasing each other, “singing” and establishing their territories.  News to interlopers: our garden, rich with suitable perches, flowers and tiny winged insects, is already claimed up.

Posted by Allison on Oct 15th 2010 | Filed in birds,close in,growing things,natural history,yard list | Comments (8)

Spot the bird: Lesser goldfinch fressing

We planted sunflowers in the garden for the goldfinch; it seems to have worked.

Now that the flower heads are mature and seedful on the stalks, the bushes are crowded with Lesser goldfinch. There are lots more flowers in bloom, which will keep the hungry finches supplied into the fall or even early winter. The thin stems don’t seem to support the weight of larger birds, so the lil yellow finks have the crop to themselves. The LEGOs (LEsser GOldfinch) also love herb seeds, “Mexican Hat” (Ratibida columnaris) seeds, and the nyjer thistle we hang for them from mesh feeders. They are cling feeders, and often feed hanging head-down.

Here are a couple of photos from this morning of male and female Lesser goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria) chowing down on the seeds from the ripe sunflowers. In the top photo is an easy-to-see first-year male, nearly completely molted into his adult male plumage. The picture to the left is a “Spot the Bird” since the little bodies blend in so well, due to both color and size; I counted three goldfinch, two males and a less colorful, olive-y female, but there could be more. I put up a big file, so please enlarge it to see better. (All photos A.Shock)

Lesser goldfinch are the default goldfinch of the western US. If you live east of the 100th parallel (roughly), you’ll have the dapper American goldfinch (called Carduelis tristis on account of its “sad” vocal note), who is slightly larger and yellower and who uses its noticeably pink, conical bill to open seeds. Lawrence’s goldfinch (C. lawrencei, no points for etymology there) is the most uncommon of “our” goldfinches; most of the population lives in arid California grasslands, but they roam a bit, and a few show up in Arizona and other western states most years.

Etymology

According to Choate’s American Bird Names, the genus Carduelis is derived from the Latin word carduus, thistle, goldfinches’ favorite food the world around. The species name, psaltria, is from the latin word for “lutist” because of its musical singing. They do have a bright, cheery song, lengthy for such a small bird — LEGO is the smallest of the three North American goldfinches — and they chatter delightfully in groups in the palo verde trees after the morning feeding session is finished. If you have a tough time keeping the species name “psaltria” in mind, try this mnemonic: psaltria sounds a bit like (although is totally unrelated to) “paltry”, which means small.

By the way, there is no correlation to bird body size and song duration or (relative) volume; it’s just humorous when a little beak opens up and lets out a long stream of warbly, chatty notes. The Winter wren is another small bird with a mighty song.

Two too-hot pear

Says me: few plants are more gratifying than prickly pear cactus, Opuntia spp. At least, if you live in the desert, or any reasonably dry place.

Actually, even in not so dry places: we saw some naturalized in Aoteraroa (New Zealand), which seemed frankly bizarre, knowing how much rain that island gets (see the photo hanging off the very bottom of the post, like how NZ hangs off the bottom of the world).

And there are species that grow in cold-winter climates — like one that used to surprise me every time I saw it in the dry glades of Missouri.  It would lie down flat under the snow in winter, and just wait, hunkered down, for spring.  I seem to recall its Latin name was Opuntia humifusa, which at least sounds like it means that it grows stuck to the soil.

So, pretty much anywhere you live, there’s probably a variety of “pear” that will grow and bloom in your conditions, with little care other than a basic knowledge of what kind of light conditions it prefers, and how much moisture it requires or can tolerate. (Photos E.Shock; not color-enhanced)

The top two photos are of a couple of Opuntia blooming now in our yard.  The first one is Opuntia aciculata, or Chenille prickly pear, named after its deceptively velvety cinnamon spines called glochids; the other is a variety of Santa Rita prickly pear (Opuntia santa-rita), named after the southern Arizona mountains that are its home range.  The purple color of the pads is natural for this cactus if it’s allowed to grow with available moisture: it gets greener when it’s grown lushly, or in monsoon season when rain is more plentiful.

<< A naturalized “pear” growning in Rotorua, New Zealand.  Probably a sub-tropical species.  The plant it’s growing up into could be Manuka, famous for the honey bees make from it.

You may know that Opuntia pads are actually water-storing stems.  The plant’s leaves, sometimes only present for a short time as new pads are forming, grow on the edges and faces of young pads; you can see some tiny green-and-red leaves on the newest pads above the yellow flower on the Rita-pear above.

Posted by Allison on May 5th 2010 | Filed in botany,close in,growing things,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

This is not albino dog poop…

…it’s a coil of tube-slush that blurped out of the hose this morning — yes, ICE!  So, the frost-cloth and styrofoam cups are stratigically positioned, ready to be placed over newly-planted herbs, and on tender cactus-tips late this afternoon: tonight is supposed to be the first frost of winter.  The hummers are hitting the nectar feeders hard(Photo A.Shock)notalbinodogpoop

Posted by Allison on Dec 4th 2009 | Filed in close in,growing things,natural history,oddities,yard list | Comments (0)

Desert Chimaeras in the garden

We go from desert Gryphons to desert Chimaeras — of course, not real chimaeras, in either the mythological or the genetic sense.  I’m talking about planting desert perennials in clumps, so that with maturity comes an exciting mixed-plant combo that combats the tedious “Plug-a-plant” school of xeric landscaping we see so much of here in Phoenix and other desert cities.

Many yards and businesses suffer from this dull technique of desert landscaping: start with a flat space topdressed with gravel, plug in a desert perennial, like a Rain Sage (AKA Cenizo, Leucophyllum spp.) or Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), then plug in another one 20 feet away, and another, and another, ad nauseum, like the last pieces on a chessboard chasing each other around.  Worse still, these tough plants are then often abused by being trimmed into lollipops or wonky cubes.  To my eyes, it’s a sterile and unnatural look that people latch onto for two simple reasons: it looks tidy, and it’s considered “easy-care.”  These are not bad things.  But what some would call “tidy” I would call “severe”.  And the “Plug-a-plant” plan isn’t really easy care: Because although the plants selected are often natives, both the space between them and the pruning-up of their foliage allows sunlight and heat to reach the soil and even the base of the plant, which means they usually require supplemental watering to thrive.

In the Real Desert, plants don’t grow that way: in all but the most parched deserts, plants clump, intertwining and growing up through each other.  That way, they shade each other’s roots, and provide sun-protection for young plants, and wind protection in an open landscape.  This is such an advantage that to some degree it outweighs the disadvantage of competition among close neighbors for resources like water and nutrients.  The classic example is a saguaro growing up under a “nurse tree” like a Palo Verde or Ironwood: the tree shelters the young cactus until it’s tough enough to survive the hot sun and drying wind on its own, when it comes up through the branches of the nurse tree.  Many desert cactus, like Graham’s Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria grahamii) struggle in the full sun of the low desert, and grow their entire lives under the eaves of perennials like bursage and brittlebush.

An excellent example of how nature and gardeners differ is where each grows the excellent Sonoran twiggy shrub Chuparosa (Justicia californica).  Once established, it’s a low-care plant used along highways and in yards and commercial plantings, usually planted alone in full sun and lightly irrigated, where it takes on a robust cage-like growth pattern of its green, photo-synthesizing stems that in season end with lots of small red, hummer-attracting tubular flowers.  Very nice.  So imagine my surprise when I first saw it growing in the wild on a hike in the McDowell Mountains: it was clambering up inside palo verdes, ocotillo, and other shrubs and trees almost like a vine with shaded roots, its stems growing upward to the sun and offering its blooms to pollinators several feet in the air, often inside the shady branches of its support plant.

Once I observed this, there was no going back: Chuparosas went in under many of our mesquite trees, and intertwined with ocotillo, wolfberry (Lycium spp.), Ruellia (R. peninsularis) and the Chihuahuan native, Woolly butterfly bush (Buddleyia marrubifolia), Pink fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) and even red Chuparosa with the yellow-blooming variety.  When everyone’s in bloom it’s a mosaic of color.  Here are some photos, taken just this week in our yard.  Be sure to click on each to enlarge.

Above left: blooming chuparosa, up a mesquite.  When the chup is young, it’s protected by the light shade of the mesquite, but it quickly grows up to the light, where it blooms.

Next, right: a Pink fairy duster, red chuparosa, and a non-native senna.

Left, a yellow variety of Chuparosa growing entwined with a Ruellia.

You can also plant plants next to one another so they grow like different-looking parts of the same plant.  Here’s a blooming Pink fairy duster twinned with a Triangle-leafed bursage, also in bloom so that it looks like a half-green-half-pink plant:

I suppose I would have to admit that, like plug-a-plant, this style of desert landscaping might not be to everyone’s taste, as it does give the impression of lots of rambling natives and spots of mixed color.  But allowing your plants to follow more natural growth-habits does have the advantage of cutting down on or even eliminating supplementary watering, and NO PRUNING except in cases of particularly rambunctious growers.

All photos A. Shock.

One bit of advice for desert gardeners: don’t forget to water newly transplanted plants for a couple or even three years, until they’re well established. Plants grown in nurseries for sale in containers are grown very wet, even desert varieties.  This can actually shorten their lives as it it can hasten them to bloom, and it also makes them water-needy in your garden. Even desert natives need extra water to make the transition from pots to landscape.  Seedlings are another story: consider growing desert natives from seed — they establish rapidly without much extra water, adjusting their size and growth rate to what’s availble to them naturally.  So don’t despair if your gallon-sized Penstemon only lasts one season — as long as it flowers, you’ll have drought-hardy seedlings next year.

Another tip for low-desert gardeners is regarding the ever-present Creosote bush, or “Greasewood” (Larrea tridentata).  It’s one of the toughest, most drought-hardy desert shrubs around (and smells great in the rain), but it’s got a chemical defense system that “discourages” (i.e. kills) some other plants, or inhibits seed germination.  (In fact, this plant is the exception that proves the rule: it’s got this defense to keep shade-sharing and water-sucking free-loaders away.)  So, if you’re planting under Creosotes, make sure you’re putting in creosote-tolerant species.  For instance, we’ve had luck with Christmas cholla (Cylindropuntia lepticaulus), but less luck getting Chuparosa started under creosote.

Posted by Allison on Mar 16th 2009 | Filed in botany,growing things,yard list | Comments (0)