dishin' the DIRT on hit and myth landscaping

Archive for the category “Garden people”


Yes, I’m a gypsy. No sooner than I’ve completed the last project on my to-do list (and hubby’s done with his honey-do list),  and I develop an acute itch only cured by priming the ZILLOW app on my iPhone. Hubby recognizes that dazed look on my face. He’s come to hate that look.

Last spring, hubby retired. We decided we’d live at our farm during the week (a 2 1/2-hour drive away) heading back to an apartment on The Waterway for weekends so we don’t miss grandkids or church. Sounds like a perfect retirement plan, right: no-maintenance living on one end, never-ending on the other. After all, I can write from anywhere with an internet connection. Lots of people do that. It’s called tele-pathetic work, I think.

But, God…He not only has a big BUT, He’s got an impeccable sense of comedic timing. The second day out on our retirement road trip to Yosemite, we got a call that could not have come from anywhere except above. So my hubby took the job and I took to ZILLOW. Again. The farm will continue as a weekend hobby for now.

Apparently, my plants have a touch of gypsy, too. Neighbors (of numerous houses) swear they’ve witnessed shrubs and perennials in my yard lift their skirts…uh…er…ROOTS when they see me coming with a shovel. The home we bought THIS time was a rental property for several years. It had good bones; however, a few were brittle, the rest broken. So here I come with my shovel.


Want a happy face on your shrubs? Transplant at the right time!

We straddle the Texas Gulf Coast and the Pineywoods here. Our weather is somewhat temperate. Also somewhat temperamental, but that’s for another post. The best time to re-do a landscape is our version of winter, which actually translates as less-hot-than-other-seasons. People who hate cold come live here in the winter, probably in this house till we rescued it. Heat’s the nemesis rather than cold when it comes to gardening here. And snowbirding, too, come to think of it. I guess plants and people are a lot alike when it comes to weather – we both hate both ends of the spectrum.


So if you’re like me, always itching to move, my hubby recommends a shovel rather than a U-Haul. He also recommends keeping an auxiliary honey-do list in emergencies. Got your shovel and ready to move? Here are some to-dos for the gypsy plants on your list. Also, check out my friend Skip Richter’s YouTube on digging up the root ball.


Root prune plants before moving. I love my sharp shooter shovel because of the no-slip spot for my foot. It’s made by Fiskars. (I received no $ for saying this, or even a discount, by golly!)







The Strike of The Poison Sisters (ivy, sumac, & oak)

Next time, I'm hoping to get an earful of the Pointer Sisters instead of the poison sisters.

Next time, I’m hoping to get an earful of the Pointer Sisters instead of The Poison Sisters. (This is AFTER 3 days of steroids & with a load of cream on it to stop the itching.) 

My friend Kylee announced last week she had contracted a common gardening disease. My exposure coincided with hers, although we live nowhere close to one another. And we aren’t unique this time of year. As seedlings emerge in the warm spring sun, so do we gardeners. For the 85% of Americans who react to some degree to a plant oil called urushiol (yoo-ROO-shee-all), spring springs with more than we’d hoped.

My allergic reaction to urushiol – found in The Poison Sisters (oak, sumac, & ivy) – seems to be increasing annually. Or even semi-annually as I’ve gotten it spring AND fall in the last year. WebMD says it can either become more severe with additional exposures, or go away altogether as you’re desensitized. Mine is not going away. To be honest, the fact I’m more often around it since we bought our farm probably explains the increase in frequency, if not the increase in reaction.

Here’s info on what your skin‘s reaction might look like, and here are photos so you can spot The Poison Sisters before they spot you.  My friend Kylee Baumlee – co-author with Jenny Peterson of INDOOR PLANT DECOR from St. Lynn’s Press – shares her suggestions on how to get rid of the plant once you find it on her blog.

Zanfel 4 pois ivy

If you don’t catch the poison ivy exposure in time to wash it away, this scratches the itch.

Unfortunately, once again I had to go the steroids route to get it under control. Next time I’ll do it differently.

My friend Edgar Graham discovered if he immediately washes the area with DAWN dish detergent to cut the oil, he rarely has a reaction to the poison ivy. If he misses a spot washing and the dermatitis appears, he dabs a product called Zanfel to any bumps and within a few minutes the itch is gone and in a few days the rash disappears. Why Dawn? Maybe the Poison Sisters and Tony Orlando’s girls are like oil and water.

This photo, from Mother Nature Network, proves that DAWN dish detergent is for the birds. Or the ducks, anyway.

This photo, from Mother Nature Network, proves that DAWN dish detergent is for the birds. Or the ducks, anyway. My friend Edgar proves it’s effective on fighting The Poison Sisters, too.


WHEN to plant WHAT

Cherie's planting season wheel

My confession that rules were blatantly disregarded when I planted shrubs during  July brought sorrowful bent heads and looks of disapproval.  And those were just from Gus the Wonder Cat…..

Gus the Wonder Cat is wondering why I'm crazy enough to plant shrubs in summer!

Gus the Wonder Cat is wondering why I’m crazy enough to plant shrubs in the heat of summer!

I can imagine what your thoughts on the subject might be.

As a designer, I often myself tempted to The Dark Side, putting FORM before FUNCTION. Someone always pays when that happens. Sometimes it’s Mrs. Skywalker. This time it’s me. I’ve been shlepping water hoses through the common area next to my house several times a week and the newly-planted beauty berry still doesn’t look, well, beautiful. If you don’t want you to fall into the same trap, use this graphic telling you when to plant what at your house.  Your plants will thank you for following the rules. And Gus will think you’re a genius.

Need to know HOW to plant trees and shrubs? Here’s a video from my friends at The National Gardening Association Wanna TRANSPLANT a shrub or tree in the next few months? Here’s how!

Understory beauty berry bush, like this variegated 'Snow Storm' variety, prefer cooler temps when planted and show distress at anything less.

DEAD ENDS take on new meaning: this variegated ‘Snow Storm’ beauty berry is making its displeasure known, dying off on the tip ends after leaving the shade cover of a nursery for the sun cover of July.

Wild about Wildflowers, Part 1

Bluebells at Denver Botanic Gardens, where it’s hard to find the ice cream but easy to find the flower.

This week I had great fun with the Ft. Bend Master Gardeners in Rosenberg, Texas. They wanted to hear about one of my plant passions: wildflowers. (I’m sharing a list of my favorite wildflowers at the end of this post, plus a FREE BOOK for a lucky winner!)

Many Americans alive today were not around to remember when wildflowers were called “weeds.” That transformation in thought is a recent developement. (RECENT if you are an old fart, like me.) The Beautification Act of 1965, championed by then 1st lady-Lady Bird Johnson, brought much deserved appreciation for our natural beauties. (Okay, I wasn’t in school yet when LBJ was president, so maybe I’m not THAT old.)

The entry sign at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX.

The entry sign at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX. For more info on the childhood of Lady Bird Johnson, read MISS LADY BIRD’S WILDFLOWERS, by Kathi Appelt with art from Joy Fisher Hein, illustrator of my book, BLOOMIN’ TALES.

For many years, our native wildflowers were sought after as foreign favorites, proven to be hardy additions to European gardens. A prophet in his own land, right? Mrs. Johnson’s love for her Texas roots – and the attached flowers – bloomed into a determination that her fellow Americans were missing the boat. Or at least the wheelbarrow.

So what is a wildflower? “A flower not intentionally planted or seeded,” says Wikipedia. How is that different from a weed? Maybe it’s not. A new friend from Ft. Bend Master Gardeners (thanks, Vic!) says “a weed is a plant that no one has discovered a use for yet.” In my experience, a weed could be a misunderstood wildflower. It’s often a plant that happened to take hold in a spot where it’s unwanted. A wildflower in a flower bed might be okay, but that same plant in the lawn is considered a weed. Why do they seem to thrive in the lawn instead of the well-tended garden? Because most prefer a depleted soil. We take too good of care of them, in other words.

There’s some disagreement on whether a plant should be indigenous to an area to be truly considered a wildflower. Insects, animals, and birds probably prefer dining on natives over foreign plants. Most of us are leery of unknown foods, right? In my book, an INVASIVE plant is always a WEED. Intent on crowding out our native plants, gorgeous flowers lull us into a stupor as they plot to take over the world.

Weed or wildflower, here are 10 of my favorites. Next week I’ll share 10 more easy-to-grow wildflowers.

I’d also like to hear and see some of your favorite wildflowers. Share your wildflower stories and shots with me as a comment here to be in the running for a FREE copy of my children’s book BLOOMIN’ TALES, full of legends telling how some of our wildflowers got their names. And if you are in the Austin area next weekend, the illustrator -Joy Hein- and I will be signing copies on Saturday, April 27th, from 1-4 in the Wildflower Center’s bookstore.

  • fragrant aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)
  • beauty berry (Callicarpa americana)
  • beebalm (Monarda spp.)
  • blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)
  • bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum)
  • blue sage (Salvia farinacea) (Salvia x ‘Indigo Spires’)
  • butterfly weed (Aeslepias tuberosa)
  • cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  • Hinkley’s columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinkleyana)
  • purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Nurturing nature(al) readers: YOU CAN GROW THAT!

My dad, Dr. Bob Foster, with me at 18 months old.

Watching the nightly news is painful, isn’t it?  I hate it in the same way I hate coming up on a bad car-wreck: I look but I always wish I hadn’t.  From the newscasts, it would seem playing outside is one of the most dangerous things a kid can do. As a child of the 60’s, I played outside a little bit every day and most of the day during summer. Nature called each morning. (Didn’t mean it THAT way….. I was young and had camel bladder!)

There were things to do and my brothers and I answered by doing them. We were in trees, making mud pies, pretending to be on safari (remember “Daktari” on t.v.?),riding bikes through paths or making our own. Imagination and room to roam were in ample supply.  We had a world to conquer, after all.  Either that, or my mom locked the screen door and told us not to return till lunch.  Regardless, I believe playing outside is one of the major influences in my life.  I think it made me a lover of nature.

Each month, dozens of landscaping professionals gather virtually during the 1st week – usually on the 4th – to share their expertise for an online event called YOU CAN GROW THAT! Although my  contribution typically emerges from gardening questions coming to my blog or from my landscaping clients, this month’s entry celebrates my new children’s book – BLOOMIN’ TALES.  I’ve been designing learning gardens and Schoolyard Habitats for the past twenty years.  I found using wildflower legends helps students and their teachers remember names of the plants in their new garden.  Often the stories also tell about habitat and pollinators necessary for the plants to thrive.  Generations handed down these legends, a tool for their children who were to become stewards of the land after them.

Recently, my friend Linda Lehmusvirta – who also happens to be the producer of Central Texas Gardener on PBS, – asked me to stop by and introduce her audience to some of my favorite BLOOMIN’ TALES and talk about my passion for wildflowers and their stories.  It was fun (and even a little intimidating) to walk into the old AUSTIN CITY LIMITS studio, but the CTG crew soon had me talking about growing up with plants.  Central Texas Gardener on PBS, Austin

So where will children’s love of nature come from if they can’t experience what I did?  While they are a poor substitute, t.v. and books do offer hope for the disaster MY generation created, dropping the baton somehow, leaving our world defenseless except for some slogans and cute animal pictures begging us to save things “before it’s too late.”  I hate to be dramatic, but in my view, if we don’t intentionally emerge kids early in nature, making it a NATURAL part of growing up for them to play outside, it might already be too late.

A special TEXAS edition of BLOOMIN’ TALES is available, too.

By the way, I’ll be giving away a copy of BLOOMIN’ TALES on my website – – on Friday!

Planting seeds straight into the ground

Lately, I’ve gotten several questions about the best way to start seeds in the ground, also called straight sown seeds. (Of course, I don’t DO straight lines, so that is a bit of an oxymoron at my house…..)  I don’t know that my way is the BEST, but it works well for me.  I’m open to suggestions – and welcome royalties from a patent partnership –  if you’ve found one that’s better.

Bottomless, this pot-o-basil is not what it appears.

HIT: starting your own plants from seed is inexpensive and EASY if you protect the seedlings!

First off, be sure you’re planting the seeds at the proper depth. If they’re from a packet, it should tell you how deep to put them in; as a general rule, seeds and bulbs require planting between double – and – triple their height. (Here’s my friend WILLIAM MOSS with Patti Moreno showing you how it’s done with veggies.) If you’ve planted them properly, you’ll start seeing green several days or weeks – or even months – before they are established well-enough to become actual rooted plants. During that time, the underworks are branching out to support the upperworks, making it vital you baby those fragile seedlings. I find the main protection my new seedlings need are actually from ME, though. Forgetting I’ve put seeds down, I mulch over that bare spot. Or I can’t remember what I put there because the tag is missing.  Sometimes a heavy downpour is the culprit and my seeds end up down the street.

We even have a neighborhood pooch whose owner allows him too much roaming space and he did in some cassia seeds with a well placed dump.  Yes, it is organic, but come on!

I used to stack rocks, cairn-like, stick a flag in it with the plant name, and cross my fingers as I walked away.  Either the flag, the rocks, or both ended up missing.

All you need to be a seed superstar is a plastic planting pot, scissors and a marker!

Now I hold on to all those small pots when I buy plants at the nursery and recycle them into seed starting studs.  I use a few the traditional way, but what works even better is making them into a TEXAS-STYLE SEEDLING CORRAL. I cut the bottom out, turn ’em upside down, and write down the plant’s name and the date I planted it with a silver marker.  Then I bury it partially into the ground, up and over the “lip” that used to be the top of the pot. Then I add a bit of potting soil and push the seeds into place.  I’m always looking for activities to lure in kids to gardening and think this might be a great one for little ones to try.  (As a bonus, this method allows me to know exactly where I need to mist when it dries out, and it holds in the water for longer.  And this isn’t proven, but it seems the black color of the pot absorbs the day’s heat and gets my seedlings going faster in early spring.)

Cut the bottom 1/4 off the small plastic plant pot and turn it on its head for a plant perimeter/marker.

Ignore the label on this one….it’s actually G. aestivalis winklerii ‘Grape Sensation,’ not ‘Purple Passion.’ But I wouldn’t know WHAT or WHERE it was without its seedling corral, would I?









You might want to cut the perimeter away once the seedlings are up….

or just leave it in place so you remember those bulbs are there even when they aren’t in bloom.

WARNING: if a varmint wants those seeds, even an armed guard can’t stop ’em!  Need proof?

Here’s who came to dinner at my house last week.  Yes, those are carefully dried/saved/planted hibiscus seeds this little guy decided to grab in the run-through at Casa Colburn-a!

P. Allen’s Little Rock

Did you know Little Rock is named after a LITTLE ROCK? The BIG ROCK is just upriver, the Quapaw Indians using this landmark as a trading post prior to Europeans horning in on the action.

While in Little Rock last weekend speaking at the Arkansas Literary Festival, I had the chance to experience a beautiful city I’d only passed through, not been to, previously.  I also got to see a renowned gardener’s garden while in town: P. Allen Smith.  Now he doesn’t actually LIVE in this house much, apparently.  I leave my house for a week and all H*## breaks loose, yet P.Allen’s yard was in pretty good shape. (Do I have to use the “P” every time?) I was not invited to see the garden by the man himself despite my tweet I’d be in town, so my friend Ann and I strolled by his house to make sure he was okay since he didn’t answer back with his own tweet about how much he’d love to have me over for mint juleps on the verandah.

view into P.Allen Smith's back garden

Ann’s home is two doors down from P. Allen (wonder what his mom calls him?) and reports to me periodically what’s going on in the historic Quapaw Quarter of Little Rock where they live.  A garden tour is coming up in May, so many landscapes in the Quarter are getting spiffed up for the event, including Ann’s.

Still don’t know what the “P.” stands for, but wonder if it refers to the beautiful P-L-A-N-Ts?  c:

pooch portal at Ann's house

Pooch pool at Ann's house has steps so the previous resident of the backyard - a yellow lab with arthritis - could easily climb out after a dip.

rose arbor @P.Allen Smith's home in Little Rock

Roses are EVERYWHERE in Little Rock! This wall of climbers is behind the Central Library in downtown.

YOU CAN GROW THAT: squash isn’t just a child’s game!

When you follow the rules in gardening, it works.  When you don’t, it doesn’t.

A harvest in summer requires following the recipe in spring.

But the rules we must follow are not OURS.  They are nature’s rules.  That’s why gardening seems difficult.  We Americans tend to be proud of our rule-breaking ways! Actually, rules make things much easier and as Andy Rooney loved to ask, “EVER WONDER WHY…. ?”.  Well, in gardening, you don’t have to wonder.  The law of sowing and reaping cannot be bargained with or altered.  It offers a comforting predictability. Plant a squash seed, get a squash, unless yet another of nature’s rules intervenes, such as survival of the fittest squirrel or cutworm or squash bug. When it comes to planting any seed, it will have its own set of rules.  Too deep for one is just right or too shallow for another.  Think Goldilocks.  As trying as it may be, knowing thy seeds is much like knowing thy child (or spouse): they are all different and have specific needs that, like it or not, require meeting if they are to thrive.  Okay, back to seeds….  squash seeds, in particular. I grow primarily two types of summer squash. (I’ve put out seeds for winter squash, too, but those disappeared in a downpour the next day. Probably could look in my neighbor’s yard for them, but didn’t have a decent LOW-FODMAP recipe for them anyway, so just waved good-bye.)

4-6 seeds per mound for zucchini squash is a good start.


1) Both my summer types – zucchini style and the yellow straight-neck – have the same basic needs list: SUN, WATER, and TIME.

2) Seeds sown in hills – with 5 or so seeds to a mound and a 1/2 inch soil and a sprinkling of pine straw mulch – is my success recipe. My daddy taught me how and his Uncle Jim taught him.

3) Germination to ripened harvest is a couple of months, but the time from production to harvest seems only a few minutes.  It’s a booger keeping up once they start popping. I find it easiest to have a couple of sowing dates (mid-March and mid-April here in Texas) so they don’t all ripen simultaneously. Squash fatigue sets in pretty quickly at my house.  If I miss early seeding because of a late-cool snap, I purchase plants from my local nursery instead of using open-pollinated seeds stored from last year’s crop, a reputable seed company or CSA.

4) Keep squash plants picked to keep them producing.  The flowers are also tasty, which alleviates some squash over-load.  Top a salad with a yellow squash bloom for a lovely edible garnish.  Folks here along the Gulf Coast eat them fried, too.  (I might try that this summer since my daughter found a gluten-free breadcrumb mix for me.  Thinking about using corn flakes as batter…anyone experimented with that?)

Slice squash thin for freezing or dehydrating.

5) Squashes are impatient. Pick while young so they aren’t tough. And since they rot quickly after harvesting, what I don’t eat or share, I slice thin, put on a cookie sheet in the freezer then into containers and back into the freezer.  Since slices freeze individually on the cookie sheet, they easily pour out individually.

Introducing children to gardening is one of my passions. Passing on to them that there are natural rules and consequences we cannot change makes for a more fruitful – and less frustrating – life, for both parent AND child.  So get a packet of squash seeds and grab a kid (your own, preferably).  A bit of spring sweat will turn sweet come summer.  In fact, it will be a summer neither of you will soon forget. c:

HIT:Gardening with kids teaches EVERYONE patience!


Don't let taters-gone-native go to waste!

I can be lazy.

While that statement sounds very much like I AM lazy, the distinction is an important one.  For most of my life, it’s been difficult for me to even sit still, much less completely veg out.  Those days are over. Has my personality morphed, choleric gone phlegmatic?  Probably not.  When it comes to continuous, never-ending chores – such as house or yard work – my conscience has simply relaxed at the expense of years.  It seems my friend Brenda Beust Smith, the self-proclaimed LAZY GARDENER, must have arrived at the prescribed age of ease-allowance before I did, robbing me of the title.

Combine my newfound laissez-faire chore blinders, an obnoxious obsession for recycling (stemming more from being cheap AND creative than any environmental crusade), and a desire to buck time-tested gardening rules and what do you get?

The sum is often disaster. Last week’s discovery, however, will be dinner tomorrow night: plenty of yummy new potatoes.

Suppertime spuds? DIG IT!

HIT: sprouted potatoes beg to be planted!

Seed potatoes should be bought and then planted early in spring, according to the rules here in my part of Texas. My version?  Smelled something funny in the pantry after returning from vacation in October, my nose leading me to a bag of organic new potatoes pushed behind a cereal box. They weren’t so new anymore.  Already sprouted, I tucked them – untreated and uncut – into my garden after yanking my frost-bitten tomatoes out.  So here it is, 1st week of March, and my potatoes are faster food than a crowded drive-through at dinner-time.  Just pop them into a few cups of boiling water in my pressure cooker, top with a bit of olive oil, sea salt and rosemary sprigs and serve.  Sounds even lazier than a trip under the golden arches, huh?  Just sit and wait for the timer to go off!

Best Time to (TRANS)Plant Trees…AND KIDS!

When should trees be transplanted? Leslie in Texas

When our girls were young, we found traveling at night while they were asleep was a great way to avoid the not-so-fun ordeal of toddlers/teens (is there a difference other than SIZE?) on road trips.

HIT: trees (and kids) transplant whine-free while dormant!

What does that have to do with TREES?  Our precious little ones seemed in a constant state of need when strapped in and unoccupied, just as baby or even grown plants can be when we mess with their roots.  Plants like change even less than people do.  So moving them when they are asleep, or in botanical terms DORMANT, makes it easier on everyone.  That being said, let’s talk about how you know if a plant is dormant and an exception to the rule.  (Don’t our kids always make liars out us?)

"Root prune" mature trees a few months before transplanting, if possible and trim large plants if needed to handle them easier. (illustration from City of Vancouver, eh?)

Trees and shrubs, called “woody plants,” can be lumped into two categories: evergreen and deciduous.  While this may seem self-explanatory, even THAT can be confusing because evergreen plants lose and gain leaves, too.  They just don’t normally lose their leaves all at one time; they slough continuously, often with a big turnover in spring.  Think of it like our skin cells, dropping with little fanfare.  Deciduous plants suddenly look completely bare – or even dead – sometime in autumn.  (I get lots of “all my plants died when the freeze hit” e-mails every year.  Nope.  That’s just how they hibernate.) THIS is when they should be moved. Like our kids, a road trip while they’re sleeping means you shouldn’t hear a peep out of ’em.

Okay, so what’s the exception?  Tropicals.  They often ARE dead, or at least the branches are; some will come back from the roots.  DO NOT trim tropicals during cold weather!  The mushy or brittle stuff adds protection from the next cold front moving through town.  And transplanting a tropical in winter is the kiss of death, period.  Spring – or after any chance of frosty temps – keeps tropicals from feeling the cold shoulder.

MYTH: plants don’t have iCal….

Need to see how it should be done? This is a great video on transplanting trees from Growing‘s Dave Epstein.  Follow these steps and your plants will be less likely to whine about their trip.  Sorry, though.  Couldn’t find a how-to on transplanting the kids to grandma’s for Christmas, but did find THIS one that makes me thankful my own children drive themselves there now!

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: