Sunday, January 21, 2018


Like many gardeners in the south I am tempted to grow plants just outside my range. Cold snaps cause me to run for the blankets but there was no way I could have protected against the cold temperatures we had last week. We had already suffered a significant freeze event while I was away after Christmas but that was was not near as bad as the last few nights. We are typically much colder than Austin, from anywhere between 5-10º. partly because of the lack of housing and roads but in my garden there are no trees to moderate the temperature. I am fearful of the losses which may take a few weeks to really show.
I went out with my camera this morning. Typically a gardener likes to show the best of his/her garden but this morning that was impossible to find.
Our native mullein is a pretty tough plant, right? It made it through the first cold snap.

But not the second. It's hard to imagine that cold could bring it down. I shall miss the those soft velvety leaves and the beautiful flower stalk with yellow flowers.

But the plants I worry about most of all are my gorgeous structural agaves, Agave weberii.

They are already beginning to collapse. And I don't like what I see here.

Will the Philippine violet, that show stopper of the fall garden, survive? Only time will tell.

This week brings a thaw and should reveal what will live and what will die.
And I don't like this. Of course I know full well that spalling takes place when pots are full of wet soil and it freezes and thaws. There wasn't even anything growing in this pot but it was full of soil. It was very careless of me to leave out outside.

This was one of last year's garden purchases and I must say they were worth every penny.

They come in a set of 3 and I put them to good use this year. Despite the fact that calendula and alyssum are usually winter hardy I experimented by covering one grouping one. The plants came through with flying colors, whereas an uncovered grouping suffered horribly.

On a cold morning when there was no hope of getting outside I turned my attention to new life; seed cleaning and sowing. These are the dried seed heads of the American basket flower, Centaurea americana, given to me by a gardening friend last summer. This native annual has large thistle-like seed heads, but without the prickles. On the left what remains after seed removal.

The seeds are difficult to clean so some will be planted with a little extra. I use coir fibre to plant and they are on a heated seed mat. They should really have been planted in the fall so fingers crossed they will germinate quickly and soon catch up. If not I will remember to plant earlier next year.

Under the new grow light system I have arugula, chard, kale, pak choi, cilantro, tomato, brachyscome, and stocks. There is nothing more cheering on cold winter days than seed germination.

Swann River daisy, Brachyscome

10 week stocks
Pak choi
At least it makes me feel as though spring is on the way.

Sunday, January 14, 2018


Of course we are. It doesn't matter where you live I guarantee that every gardener among us is busy making plans for the new gardening year. I'm expecting to see a few of these popping up in the next week or so. Wild anemones, Anemone caroliniana,  are usually the first of our native flowers in the spring.

In northern climes first blooms may be a few months away but the ordering of seeds and plants will be well under way. I am recalling my own time spent in Eastern Canada where an old door would be erected on boxes in the sunniest spot in the house ready for seed sowing.
Things haven't changed much today. Yes, I have a greenhouse but it is full to bursting with overwintering plants. No room for seed starting in there. That has moved to my laundry room which has been a seed collection room for the last year or two. Now, with the arrival yesterday of a grow light system it is also the seed starting area.

Stay-n-grow system seen in the GS catalogue
I am wondering to myself why I never invested in grow lights before. Maybe it had to do with the cost as these systems are not cheap. But this year was made easier by using a gift card from Gardeners' Supply. I purchased a starter kit which is the lower part of the system with a plan to add on to it if I find it works well. Grow Light System.

Yesterday morning I opened the box and carefully began the construction on the living room floor. I read a lot of the comments on the website before I made the purchase and almost all of them were positive. I think there was only one negative comment and it had to do with the flimsy nature of construction. Not true at all. The product is well made and instructions are very clear on how to build.  Directions are written in good English because the product comes from England. That was a surprise. But I was not so careful taking it into the laundry room and one of the bulbs fell out and smashed!!!! Oh! careless me. Not an easy bulb to find in Austin so I am ordering on line and fingers crossed it is the right one.

My only complaint is that there is some additional expense required to add trays (shown above) on which to put your seeds starting trays, because the tray beds are perforated. GS does sell products that would work here or you can source on your own. Being a collector of anything useful that comes into the house I will reuse polystyrene meat trays to prevent water spills.

I am thrilled with the product and already well ahead on starting seeds. I also have heat mats on which to put the trays until the seeds germinate. And I plan to add the next level to the system.

When it goes dark the bulb puts out a tremendous amount of light so much so that it lights up the garden through the window. I have decided to turn it off when I go to bed.

The start of the New Year adds another year onto my age and with the realization that I cannot do quite as much in the garden as I used to do I added a piece of power equipment to make a few of my jobs a little easier. A hedge trimmer. I am not a lover of power gardening tools but this one is small, quiet and easy for me to handle.

It's main purpose will be to trim the fig ivy walls, a job that takes hours of my time. I haven't tried it yet because it is too early to be trimming off the winter kill but I did take it out for a trial run yesterday. The object was the Salvia leucantha outside the walls. I trimmed the large stems by hand and then finished off with the hedge trimmer. I was thrilled with its performance.

Who would think that this pile of sticks would look like this within a few months?
Salvia leucantha May1 2017
At the same time I cut back the miscanthus grass growing alongside the greenhouse. I wouldn't normally cut back this grass so early but it is ready to be moved to another location. I am waiting on the lemon grass growing in the corner. It survived out here last winter and I am hoping for a repeat performance. It was never watered at all last year and still grew well in the decomposed granite. If it doesn't survive I have several shoots potted up in the greenhouse and will replace in this spot. This is a big grass and needs lots of room.There is no flower but it produces masses of fresh shoots for my Thai recipes.

Lemon grass

The area outside the walls is a transition area between wall and septic field. It is planted with waif and strays from the garden, lantana, salvias, prickly pear, Mexican mint marigold, blue mist flower a crape myrtle and pomegranate ; all deer proof plants. It is now tidied up and mulched waiting for spring to arrive. 

It feels good to have made a start on winter clean up.

Sunday, January 7, 2018


My camera was strangely silent on our recent Caribbean travels. For a few days I carried it around and never took pictures so in the end I gave up. Of course the day we visited Hunte's gardens was the wrong day to have left it in the room. I would have to make do with my phone.

A previous visit to Barbados saw us taking a local bus high into the hills and down towards the coastal village of Bathsheba, to visit Andromeda Gardens; a six acre garden, now cared for by the Barbados National Trust, but once the private home and grounds of Iris Bannochie. She had gathered tropical plants from around the Caribbean to plant in her rocky, coral garden. On that day we had no pressure on time so when the local bus overheated part way there, finally chugged up the hill and dropped us off in this seemingly remote part of the island, we had no concerns about our return. We did indeed wait a long time for a return bus but eventually made it back to our hotel.

Hunte's Gardens didn't look too far from Bathsheba so our plan was to take the bus again. After a half hour walk from the ship we arrived at the bus station to find we had just missed the Number 5, 10am bus. The next one would not come until 11am-if then! Being the worry wart that I am I was already worrying about getting back to our ship by 4:30pm. not to mention the possibility of a bus breaking down. We decided to see if we could find a taxi to take us there-$60 was what they wanted because they would have to wait there for 2 hours for the return journey. We walked back to the bus station and I fretted some more as we waited for the bus. Then a couple arrived(tourists) asking if we spoke English! They wanted to go to Andromeda Gardens. When we told them we wanted to go to Hunte's Gardens and suggested we join up and take a taxi together we all went back outside found a taxi who would take all four of us for $50. Split between us this was more manageable.

As soon as we walked through the gates we knew we had arrived somewhere special on this tropical  island. Boasting a higher rainfall from any other part of the island that, and underground steams ensure the luxuriant growth of all the plants.

I inquired of a lady sitting by the gate of the naval officer was standing in the corner-Lord Nelson, Of course. I didn't think much about him at the time but this morning found myself going down the rabbit hole of opinion, on Lord Nelson, in Barbados. Clearly, as at the Battle of Copenhagen, he is turning "a blind eye" to all that controversy.

Anthony Hunte, who created the current gardens, had always been a plantsman, and within two years of  purchasing a 10 acre parcel of what had been the Castle Grant sugar plantation in 1990, he had created this tropical paradise, rising from the bottom of a sink hole 150' deep and 500'wide. I was reminded instantly of Butchart Gardens, which was created in a old quarry.
Mr Hunte's family came to the island from Britain as indentured servants in the 1600s so he is through and through Bajan. I wonder if he was educated in England. I listed to an interview and caught a slight Irish lilt to his accent.
What made it truly magical was the strains of classical music wafting up through the palm trees. I don't think I have ever heard that before.

We paid our $15 entrance fee and were given some modest direction to follow the steps down to the bottom and to return up to the house where we might meet the owner himself.
I completely failed to capture the steep winding steps, down into the bowl of the sink hole, which Anthony Hunte described the making of as being a learning experience. He originally started to create the steps from the top going down before realizing that you must start at the bottom and work up.

Along the way he had created lot of side pathways leading to small intimate seating areas.

And an eclectic mix of statuary tucked into corners among the plants.

I thought his staggered bowls a wonderful idea.

There were beautiful flowers and orchids at every turn.

We made our way back up to the house, created from what had once been the stables. I'm not sure if he actually uses these rooms or that they are just decorated for the public. Either way in such a humid climate the walls were covered with black mold. It reminded me of life in Hong Kong where it is impossible to keep the mold at bay.

We pretended we were taking tea in one of the rooms.

And then we entered a large covered verandah where there was a small gift shop and where people were sitting having a drink.
Mt Hunte was busy trying to do rather too many things. I told him how wonderful his gardens were and he told me to come on in and sit down and 'let's talk' I really would have liked to have heard more about his endeavors in the making of the gardens.

As we left a young man was just entering with a group of visitors and carrying some coolers. Maybe they were going to have picnic in the grounds. Sometimes the garden is used for weddings with the seating area probably at the bottom and the bride descending into the gully down those steep steps. How magical that must be.
If we ever find ourselves back on the island again I will be sure to catch the early bus and stay a while longer on the terrace-maybe sipping a rum punch with Mr Hunte, and I will take my camera.

Saturday, January 6, 2018


As a gardener one thing you learn very quickly is that that no two gardening years are the same.

We have returned from our winter travels, albeit a short one of only 14 days, to some pretty sad scenes in the garden. Of course, I have seen it all before whether it be spring, summer or winter. Probably the most devastating was a terrible hail storm at the height of the spring flowering. Much was lost, some of it taking more than two years to be realized. When I left the garden, many times for 6 weeks in summer, exuberant growth is what met me on my return, as well as weeds, an unwelcome rattlesnake who had taken up residence in my absence, and on one occasion a pair of foxes.
What you don't expect is to have trouble leaving the garden in the winter. We always turn off the water when we leave and move the less hardy plants into the garage, greenhouse, potting shed and even the house. But this year the cold was prolonged and deep and some of my hardiest plants have succumbed. The soap aloes, which I had divided giving them each their own space in which to grow, instead of on top of one another, are soft mush. Will those long cold days and nights be the end of my Philippine violets? Even my ghost plant did not find refuge among the rocks in the sunken garden.

And yet!!! This photograph was taken on January 6th 2017 as we returned from a New Year visit to Connecticut. That was my concrete fish fountain underneath all that ice, the fountain still trickling.It crumbled apart after it thawed out.

Really not much different from this year when I used a sledge hammer to break the 2" thick ice.

 I almost couldn't wait for the New Year to begin so I could make plans for the 2018 garden year. What visions went through my head while among all that tropical foliage and balmy Caribbean air. What a shocker to hear gardening friends lamenting the strong cold front that stuck around night and day for 3 days. Of all years too, when my garden will be on a tour. But, the gardener presses on undaunted. Today the sun is shining and I am thinking about starting some seeds. I have moved all the orchids out of the laundry room to make way for seed starting. I have ordered a couple of plants and a grow light system. I walked around the garden and saw the bluebonnets are strong and healthy, the love-in-a-mist, California poppies, larkspur, rose campion and Barbara's buttons have shrugged off winter's cold. Bulbs are beginning to peep through the soil. Even the scarlet flax survived. In the days to come I will begin a tidy up of all the dead annual zinnias as I start new ones indoors.

I'm feeling better already.