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Ants-in-the-Pants Not a Fun Game

Yesterday while removing spring/summer blooming plants in a raised bed, I found a little more than dying plants. Recent rains encouraged fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) to look for higher ground. Raised bed = water-free home. Think of a beach house on stilts. Part of the mound fell from the root ball of a plant onto the leg of my jeans. Passersbyers witnessed moves that haven’t come from my body in quite some time when  I was
stung several times. I still can’t figure out how those demons got skin contact. Soon after the fiery sensation (thus, the common name),  itchy red bumps emerged, morphing overnight into nasty looking bumps that made my right leg look more like a 14-year-old boy’s face.

These boogers have been a southern gardener – and nature lover – problem for several decades now, hitching a ride into the U.S. on ships or even plants imported from their native South America. This invasion does have its upside, though. “Fire ants voraciously consume populations of fleas, ticks, termites, cockroaches, chinch bugs, mosquito eggs and larva, scorpions, etc.” says Galveston County Master Gardener Trish McDaniel in a publication called “Beneficials In the Landscape” from Texas A&M University. “(The) culinary creed for fire ants could be: if it will stay still for a bit, then it’s dinner!”

As far as full-grown humans and livestock, this appetite fire ants have for the things we hate most is good news. Not so much for little ones, though. A fawn born near a fire ant mound can spell disaster if momma doe doesn’t get her baby away quickly enough. So too with a calf or kitten.

a-on-playground

Organic pest control is always best to use near children or pets.

There are a number of organic methods for ridding yourself, albeit temporarily, of fire ants. (A great website for this information is from Urban Harvest.) One free way is to pour boiling water on the mound’s freeway. Do this several times over a two-hour period for the best results, as some of the ants could be too far down in the earth to be killed with the 1st pour. As they BRING OUT THEIR DEAD (you Monte Python fans know the line), hit the mound again.

When I found the mound – or they found me – yesterday, I took a little different approach. With a school nearby and me nearby (I’m a clutz and can’t blame McDonald’s if I get scalded), I sprinkled a bit of instant grits around the area.

kiss-my-grits

For a cheap & easy fire ant bait, you can KISS MY GRITS!

The ants will take it down deep into the mound where it will absorb liquid and they’ll blow up like they’re on steroids and eventually implode. Or explode. The point is, they’ll no longer bite.

So sorry to disappoint, but I’ll not be doing the ants-in-the-pants dance for a bit. Unless DANCING WITH THE STARS calls. Then could I borrow a mound from you? That’s basically the only way to get my groove on these days, I’m afraid.

all lit up and nowhere to go

My newest book is progressing nicely. All work on it has halted for the moment, however: the boss bumped me to a new office upstairs.

In most worlds, moving up in the building = moving up in the company. Not so much here. I’ll have to actually MAKE an office before I can work in it. I’m banned from my garden until I complete the task, too. It’s not a sacrifice staying inside right now since temps still hover in the mid – high 90’s in my garden. It is tough to know I must sacrifice my last BOX BASTION and organize the catch-all-junk-drawer of our house into a usable office.

This old lamp needs a serious make-over.

This old lamp needs a serious make-over.

The most difficult part of the job? It requires completing a project, emptying said boxes and finding a home for the contents. The reason those boxes have been sitting up there since we moved a year ago is I didn’t want to deal with sorting and making decisions on the contents. Some items no longer fit our needs. Some don’t fit our decor. Some were gifts, some we bought on impulse. Most I don’t even remember why we bothered to box and move. Besides an every-growing pile destined for Salvation Army, I’ve decided it’s terribly wasteful to get rid of everything and buy all new. Instead, I’m re-doing lamps and furniture, a mini-makeover, repurposing what I can salvage from our past.

One of my favorite authors – Alice Hoffman – paints her office with each book project. That seems ambitious – and EXPENSIVE – since she writes one every year or so. I actually enjoy construction and would choose busying myself in the garden or my house over writing most days. Writing deadlines are essential for me, primarily since authorship is a love/hate relationship. I LOVE speaking to groups and schools. I LOVE starting new book or magazine projects and doing extensive research. I HATE being forced to sit for hours at a computer to write and find it even more excruciating to stick with things once the new’s worn thin.

Hmmmmm.  I wonder if Alice dreads the deed as much as I do and paints to keep from writing.

Anyway, I’m hoping these quick-fixes in my office tempt me to linger in my chair a little longer, at least until the north wind returns so outside temperatures retreat to tolerable. Wanna see what I’m doing? Here’s my attempt at un-fru-fruing a pair of buffet lamps hiding in one of the boxes.

After: my lamp (and whitewashed table) will feel more at home in a beach-themed office.

After: my lamp (and whitewashed table) will feel more at home in a beach-themed office.

I hope you’ll be inspired to tackle a make-over project for yourself or someone who needs help on one of theirs.  Maybe you’ll even be inspired to FINISH. Now THAT would be ambitious! cc:

FREE FRIDAY! and Summer is NOT the time to plant

To celebrate August, the end-of- summer (since schools start ever-earlier), I’ll have a FREE FRIDAY tomorrow. Go to my author FaceBook page and pick which one of my children’s books you want and I’ll pick you. Or Gus the Wonder Cat will pick for me. IF he’s in the mood for that kind of thing. He IS a cat, after all.  If you don’t FB, just comment on this post to get your name in the hat.

River rock boulder at A&A  Stone (www.A&AStone.com)

Arkansas creek boulder Linda helped me find at A&A Stone. Thanks Linda!

Following an afternoon choosing boulders for my entry garden (I’ll show you the before/after soon), I distinctly heard my name called. Sensing the voice beckoned from the nearby garden center, I was compelled to stop and walk through the rows of newly arrived plant material to make certain my garden was not lacking. As any other gardener would have, I soon recognized my garden was indeed lacking and began piling necessities onto the wagon to remedy my plight.

My usual time for summer gardening is morning. And when I say “gardening” in the summer, it means making the rounds to be sure everyone is happy and healthy, yanking a few errant weeds: maintenance type chores. Theoretically, PLANTING is an autumn/winter/spring activity. However, since I do not practice what I preach, feel free to drive by and see WHY you should not put out plants in Texas’ summer, which typically lasts from April-October. Other than the desert-dwellers, my new babies are suffering tremendously. Even the true East Texas Pineywoods natives, with almost daily spritzes of hydration from the end of a hose, show a waning spirit.

I don’t blame them a bit. It is August, after all.

I’m putting together a program on WHAT TO PLANT WHEN. If you want to know the answer to that age-old question, respond to this post and I’ll send you the chart.

Living with Low Spots

After it rains, our back yard takes forever to drain. It’s so discouraging to plant things and they drown. How can we get rid of the water without flooding our neighbors?

Drainage dilemmas plague many folks, either with seasonal sinkholes where water collects after a rain or a spot that’s always spongy and nothing grows well but weeds. Now we are talking shallow depression in the yard here, not hole-big-enough-to-eat-the-house-Florida-style.

raindropsLike a leaky roof, you probably don’t even think about drainage until it rains.

Landscaping professionals may disagree on HOW to solve drainage issues, but most agree the best solution financially and physically is to work with what you’ve got. Obviously if muddy waters rage through your yard like the Mississippi at flood stage – and you’re not interested in water-front property – you might need to a more comprehensive remedy. However, if your problem is periodic or simply a nuisance, here are a few inexpensive or even FREE ideas to try.

GRADE: Lawn grass responds best to a minimum 1/4″ drop vertically for every foot horizontal distance. That grade should point AWAY from your house, meaning soil at your home’s foundation should be the highest point. (Unless you live on a mountain, but that’s another post for another day.) Why? Constantly soggy soil means constantly soggy grass which means a lawn in constant distress. Expect diseases, especially fungal infection, and the pests that follow to become the dominant feature of your landscape if the slope’s too slight.

While pleasant to view, moss on a walk-way spells D-A-N-G-E-R! Raise the walk a couple inches and backfill with sand.

While pleasant to view, moss on a walk-way spells D-A-N-G-E-R! Raise the walk a couple inches and backfill with sand.

DRAINS: A “dry river” can be installed to quickly wick water away from your low spot.

River stones, if used in a dry river, must be large enough that they won't wash away in a down-pour.

River stones, if used in a dry river, must be large enough that they won’t wash away in a down-pour.

A bit of river rock, making sure it’s headed DOWNHILL, is an easy fix. But if the stones block instead of remove water, might as well invite the neighborhood over for a  pool party next time a black cloud hovers. Water gushing  down your river?  A large boulder or clump of ornamental grass strategically located slows the flow. If the runoff is more than a dry river can handle alone, or if the area is not conducive to such a feature, consider a French drain instead of or besides. There are plenty of how-to’s online for French drains. If you hire drainage done, you might take the advice of a landscaper friend of mine when interviewing installers: “If you call in somebody to help with drainage and they don’t have a level in their truck, run ’em off!”

PLANTS: If the area is wet for a short time and not a nuisance, consider planting natives that thrive with wet feet, soaking up the extra moisture. Or how about creating a wildlife or bog garden, or even a water feature to take advantage of your problem? Check your local native plant society for a list of appropriate ones for your area.

One of my favorite plants for low spots is our native river birch, Betula nigra with its gorgeous peely bark.

One of my favorite plants for low spots is our native river birch, Betula nigra with its gorgeous peely bark.

Duel purpose, this container also holds rainwater runoff to irrigate the nearby veggie garden.

Dual purpose, this container also holds rainwater runoff to irrigate the nearby veggie garden.

RAIN BARREL: At my house, rain barrels are going in at the gutter downspouts. When I build my new porch, I’m planning the roof based on collection of rainwater so my garden is self-sustaining when irrigation limitations come back, as they surely will.

Before you head for the big guns, be sure your plumbing or irrigation isn’t leaking and you’re watering properly.  Then next time it rains, look for your low spots. Choose a remedy that will turn your problem on its head, making the area the HIGHlight of your landscape. Not so discouraging after all, is it? cc:

IF YOU HAVE A LANDSCAPING CHALLENGE, SNAP A SHOT AND LET ME KNOW. WE’LL FIGURE IT OUT TOGETHER!

Want a FREE book?

Bloomin' Tales comes in a special TEXAS edition, too!

Bloomin’ Tales comes in a special TEXAS edition, too!

Head to my author FaceBook page if you want a copy of one of my books. Gus will do the drawing later today, so you better hurry!

Honey, I’m home….almost.

Tomorrow I’ll start the trek back to Texas after a month in Colorado in grad school and my posts on GardenDishes will resume. In the meantime, hope you’ll go to my Facebook author page for a FREE book give-away!

If you have gardening questions, please send them my way. I’m ready to go back to work…. I think.

c:

HOT summer color: monochromatic doesn’t have to be monotonous

medium sized tree: desert willow

Powerful color can be powerful in the landscape.  The impact of massed color makes a showy display, even from a distance.  Don’t like the cottage garden look? No worries.

medium color: summer phlox

Try a monochromatic scheme instead. Pairings of similarly hued plants – whether it’s the bloom or the foliage – fit well in any style landscape, from modern to rustic.  A not-so-formal green gathering of diversity can be ramped up to a black-tie event when alike in their color pallete.

low color: winecup

Position the groupings so when viewed they have a pleasing flow, usually from tallest in back to shortest in front.

Here are a few of my favorites of all sizes, each one chosen for a royal purple reign.

low color: petunias

small tree: rose of Sharon, AKA althea

shrub: beauty berry

low color: purple verbena

small shrub/medium color: pavonia, also called rock rose

perennial: purple coneflower

medium ornamental grass: Gulf coast muhly

Biblical plant names (and life) can be confusing, depending on your perspective

Scary to see someone you love labeled as sick, isn’t it?  The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming.  However, after 5 days in the hospital with a family member who I almost lost, I’m back out in my garden, thankful for the abundance of life around me and recognizing its incredible fragility.  What I labeled as “healthy” was not at all; it was illness incognito.  I’ll not take wellness in myself or those I love for granted again.  At least I pray I do not.

rain lily (Cooperia pedunculata, also labeled Zephyranthes drummondii)

On a walk last night, this little rain lily was peaking out from between the stacked moss rock and curb at a neighbor’s house.  It’s one of the bulbs Chris Wiesinger and I featured in our book HEIRLOOM BULBS FOR TODAY.  A stalwart Texas native, this lab-coat white bloom is at home in any garden.  While I was oblivious to changes in weather outside the hospital windows, a place of sameness no matter what the clock says, the tiny bulb sensed moisture from a rainstorm passing through town, responding with a hearty yawning bloom, slightly fragrant and completely beautiful.

Hibiscus syriacus Rose Of Sharon

althea or rose-of-sharon (Hibiscus syriaca)

Another favorite I discovered as I wandered the streets at dusk is a shrub called althea,  known to me growing up as “rose-of-sharon.”  As with many plants, that common name is not only inaccurate, it is misleading.  First of all, althea is not a rose; it’s in the same family as cotton and marshmallow.  The Latin name is Hibiscus syriacus and it’s a native of Asia.  Don’t think it has much to do with sharon either, which refers to the Plain of Sharon spoken of in Old Testament literature, an area that runs along the Mediterranean between present-day Haifa to the north and Tel Aviv to the south.

Fig. 48.   Convallaria majalis.

Convallaria majalis, known by Europeans and Americans as “lily of the valley” or “Soloman’s seal”

While I’m on this tangent, the true “lily of the valley” plant spoken of in the Bible – according to Jewish scholars – is the yellow, fall-blooming Sternbergia lutea – native to Israel, not the white nodding perennial found in the Appalachians and in cool areas of Europe and Asia.  Apparently King James’ translators took liberties with the Hebrew word for flower bulb, turning it into “lily” in the Anglicized translation of the Bible from the early 1600’s, which many believe was done in an effort to appease the Puritan faction within the Church of England.  Sternbergia might not have been known in England at the time, or maybe the many Christian legends associated with Convallaria majalis – the plant Europeans and Americans call “lily of the valley – prompted its association with this common name instead. (The tiny white blooms are said to be the tears of Jesus’ mother when she saw her son on the cross of Calvary. It’s also the symbol of humility in the language of flowers.)

My week has given me perspective on many things, recognizing that while labels might help distinguish or describe, they are not stagnant.  My idea of “sick” was disguised in a seemingly healthy body, a deadly infection masked in a way only my loved one heard in the pain shooting through his body. Names vary and change, depending on who you are, where you are, and when you are there.  Plants and people receive titles according to the labelers perspective.   Confusing to one may explain it all to another, or could lead everyone down the wrong path entirely.   c:

Easy to grow from seed: LET US have LETTUCE!

Some of the new kids on the block...or at least in MY block!

Some of my lettuce is beginning to bolt.  Just when it starts getting too hot in the kitchen and I prefer a cool salad over a warm meal, my salad fixins’ peter out on me.  While I LIKE flowers, when a stalk shoots up on lettuce to produce flowers – thus producing seeds – I know my fresh-from-the-garden lettuce days are numbered.

'Vulcan' lettuce from seed, new to my garden this year.

A few things about growing lettuce…..

1) Most salad greens – like lettuce and spinach – prefer cool weather.  That means the Gulf Coast version of winter makes perfect growing conditions, while summer (and spring and fall) are too hot for them.  They bolt, another word for “going to seed” as my grandmother called it.  When they start this route in order to propagate (make babies), the leaves soon turn bitter. I do have a couple of varieties that last a little longer: ‘Red Sails’ and an oakleaf type whose seeds came to me from a neighbor.  She calls it “Israel lettuce” and says seeds traveled to Texas in an unnamed pocket after a visit to the Holy Land. Jury’s still out on several new ones – a tennis ball heirloom I bought from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, ‘Vulcan’ that Sakata Seeds sent me and an organic blend given to me by Territorial Seed Company – to see how they do in the heat.*
2) They key is to NOT dig a hole for the tiny seeds; instead, dot them around on moist, scratched dirt and top with a sprinkling of potting soil.  Keep them damp, but don’t pour water. The deluge will dislodge the seeds and they’ll end up sprouting somewhere else, like at your neighbor’s house.
3) I start putting out seeds around Labor Day and plant a few more in a couple of weeks.  By Halloween, I’ve got enough salad to feed my subdivision.  I have enough to feed my family long before that.
4) Some folks swear they’ve found a good summer greens substitute with Malabar spinach.  I’ve grown this vine and while it is pretty, its taste is a bit strong to me.
5) Lettuce makes a great bed edging if you are more into aesthetics than edibles.
6) Salad greens work GREAT in pots if you are yardless, or if you have trouble bending to garden.
7) Different types of greens have different nutrient levels. Texas A&M put together a chart to show you what’s what.

HIT:lettuce is easy to grow from seed!

So…..would you like some seeds?  Leave a comment to tell me and I’ll mail some out when mine go to seed.  We’ll have a salad together.  Wanna try the Vulcan? Don’t know if it will last the summer, but put enough of my Asian dressing on it and I think even my garden clogs might taste pretty good!

Live long and prosper.

(*While I do not receive compensation, I was paid in SEED MONEY…..got free seeds from Territorial and Sakata companies.)

A Different Sort of Entry

My Uncle Bob and Aunt Sammie house. He moved yesterday to his REAL home.

This week’s blog will be a bit different because it has been a very different sort of week for me.  You’ll find the details on my home page.

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