Category Archives: Garden

A Polar Vortex Situation

Bitter Oranges and Lemons

Bitter Oranges and Lemons

Hello again, and welcome to 2014 at the Brenham Cottage.

We are expecting serious cold tonight and tomorrow. While the brunt of the “polar vortex,” as some meteorologists have called it,  is sweeping through the Midwest with almost unimaginable cold, it’s frigid enough here in Central Texas to bring out the freeze cloth. That is a chore I rarely bother with, preferring to let the little darlings either fend for themselves or perish to make room for the new come spring. This is the first winter in some time in which the garden looks like it’s been through an actual winter, with perennials already frozen back.

The cool-weather veggies in their aluminum tanks (mostly radishes, kale, chard, lettuces, pak choy and some just-planted red onion starts) would probably survive, but I took the step of covering them and the herbs since we’ll see dips into the mid-20s for 6 or 8 hours tonight and tomorrow.

But what to do with the big bitter orange trees? They’re loaded, and the experts at Texas A&M say citrus fruit will freeze at these temperatures. An entire low section sprouted on one this year that has apparently reverted to its lemon graft, and it is loaded, too. Mr. Slicer would normally have wanted that mess pruned up, but we have a Situation next door, and the lemon branches provide a good, thorny screen.

I picked a grocery bag full this afternoon, plenty for a couple of batches of marmalade, but hate to see the biggest part of the harvest lost. Although something made a lot of them ugly this year, all pock-marked. (One friend says its residual weakness from the drought of two years ago; another friend says we got too much rain this summer.)

If only the Situation that resides a few feet from the bitter oranges would freeze and go away so easily. It has a criminal record, a powerful stereo, a couple of rebel flags and some outrageously loud motors that it likes to rev up for no apparent reason than to bully the neighborhood. OrangeBasket

Monster beets

Beets as big as your head!

Beets fit for Goliath.

You don’t always know what you’re going to get when you pull up greens from winter root vegetables like beets and turnips. Even a master gardener like our friend Suzanne can be surprised – kind of like feeling something ominous suddenly tugging the end of your fishing line.

A cooler-than-normal spring has given us a prolonged season for winter vegetables, and Suzanne is still harvesting a few. She brought some fresh-from-the-earth goodness for dinner one night recently.


But, my, what beets you have! What to do with a 4.5 pounder? She had two of them, gargantuan roots that could have been used in one of those kettle bell exercise classes.

They were easier to chop than we expected and surprisingly edible. We juiced them with a little fresh mint, apples and a stray clementine or two. It made a rather large mess with all the greens in our small kitchen.

So, a little lesson: Don’t leave the root veggies to fend too long for themselves. Or the summer veggies, either, for that matter. Beware, the season of squash is fast approaching.

Acrobatic caterpillars

They ate themselves out of house and home, and they have disappeared, hopefully to pupate.





The party lasted several days, and they left the place trashed. Not a leaf or blossom on it. The gardener could have pulled the dill stalk that remained, but left it alone. Perhaps because our weather has been cool, it’s sprouted new leaves and a blossom.

Little lesson: Don’t panic. Things recover. And there will be Monarch butterflies soon, assuming the mockingbirds didn’t pick them all off.

Poppies as big as the house!

Papaver somniferum var. paeoniflorum

Papaver somniferum var. paeoniflorum

Thank god they were not red.


The poppies I thinned in February surprised me by exploding like pink fireworks, towering over the poor ‘Martha Gonzales’ chorus line like Ziegfield showgirls. They have been stopping traffic for weeks.


Betty across the street, who gave me the seeds in a small vial last fall, now tells me I must plant them there every year. I suspect they will reseed, if I leave a few before collecting the gorgeously graphic, illegal-looking seedheads; but of course, they will never perform quite the same. It would rain less or more, or be warmer or colder, or cloudier or sunnier. Gardening is not a predictable sport, even when the gardener practices consistency.


But my, what a spectacular spring it has been.


After scrambling to Google, I have determined that they are Papaver somniferum var. paeoniflorum, commonly called peony or pompom poppies. Indeed, while they aren’t fragrant, they are probably the closest we will ever get in this climate to a flower that rivals a poppy.

What Remy thought of them, far left.

What Remy thought of them, far left.

I’ve brought some indoors. They pair nicely with the shoots from the artemesias that are smothering the roses along the fence.


One online source, One Stop Poppy Shop, offers them in range of colors, including a gorgeous, deep burgundy.


A palette emerges

It’s one thing to adhere to a “live with less” philosophy in the house. I don’t miss having cabinets full of dishes we never use, and nine months into this gig I’ve forgotten some of the possessions that are stowed in the Abominable Storage Unit because I JUST COULDN’T BEAR to part with them.

But limiting the palette in the garden – now, that takes some serious restraint. One of the things we love about the little house in Brenham is the color it’s painted – a soft gray-blue that also happens to be one of my favorite plant colors. So from the beginning, I had in mind to keep the front beds, at least, to a very strict color scheme using silver-blue, peachy-apricot and burgundy.


‘Frances Dubreuil’ close-up.

With the exception of a few ‘Grand Primo’ narcissus (creamy white with butter yellow cups), ‘Ice Follies’ daffodils (also white and yellow), orange calendulas (because I was desperate and couldn’t find the apricot ones) and the mystery poppies grown from seed a neighbor gave me, I was more disciplined than usual through the fall planting season. Even the trees fit the scheme, with three Arizona cypress and an olive. (My friend Suzanne did talk me into including a Mexican buckeye, which may fall more into the pink category. It’s just beginning to bud.)

A little bit of a cheat: a pot of dianthus and marigolds.

A little bit of a cheat: a pot of dianthus and marigolds.

The roses – typically my foundation plants – were easy choices, including ‘Frances Dubreuil’ (burgundy), ‘Adam’ (creamy peach), ‘Winter Sunset’ (another peach),  and ‘Star of the Republic’ (another peach!) along the picket fence; ‘Crepuscule (golden apricot) on the arbor, ‘Maggie’ (deep cerise) on a tutor and ‘Jude the Obscure’ (cabbagey peach) who required yet another bed to be dug. ‘Abraham Darby’ may yet be moved from the back yard to join them.



The scheme is finally starting to show along the fence, with ‘Adam’ and ‘Frances Dubreuil’ putting on their first blossoms above growing tufts of Artemesia ‘Colchester White.’

'Frances Dubreuil' above Artemesia 'Colchester White'

‘Frances Dubreuil’ above Artemesia ‘Colchester White’

Plays nice with salmon-colored Salvia Gregii, too.

Plays nice with salmon-colored Salvia Gregii, too.

I love ‘Frances Dubreuil’ so much I’ve turned up the burgundy a notch with two new finds: ‘Ruby Port’ Columbine – amazingly rich little flowers dancing on skinny stalks, with buds that look as exotic as ancient, elongated tulips – and Indian Feather ‘Passionate Rainbow’, a guara that at least for now has burgundy leaves.


‘Ruby Port’ Columbine

You want just enough of this color to add depth but not so much it looks like a goth party. This isn’t The Addams Family garden!


‘Ruby Port’ Columbine (aquilegia) before planting.


Not sure it will thrive in our climate, but how could I resist? And if I want to build on the palette, the lime green and soft yellow are good candidates.

‘Lilac Wonder’ Tulips

We can’t grow lilacs in these parts, and tulips are often iffy. But these little ‘Lilac Wonder’ tulips (Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’) look promising in their first season.


I planted the bulbs last fall, and was thrilled when the first blossoms peeked above the ground a few weeks ago.


I was surprised to see the blossoms hugging the ground when they opened. They’re demure –  nothing like a big Holland tulip – but they’re cheerful and they are hopefully not one-shot wonders. Becky at the Arbor Gate says hers naturalized.


This week, they grew legs.


A first-year garden is kind of a pitiful thing, all that mulch still visible; but this is a good start.


Leafing out


Everywhere we look, spring is springing.  From the first leaves of the newly-planted fig tree, discovered first by a small spider who’s already using it for a web, to the buds on “Lady Banks,” an old rose treasure that came with the property. (She will be moved slightly closer to the Parthadon after she blooms so that she can be properly wrapped around the porch post and scramble up to the roof.)

The trees are looking especially glorious in the glow of early morning and late evening, their barely-there new leaves aglow amid the sculptural outlines of twigs and branches that will soon be obscured. It’s their lacy moment.


“Lady Banks” rose is named for Dorothea Huggesen Banks (1758-1828), the wife of Sir Joseph Banks. They were patrons of plant hunter Robert Brown, who brought them the rose from China.buddingThe Texas persimmon coming on.SycamoreSunsetA neighbor’s sycamore, viewed from our back yard, lights up just before sunset.

Orange blossom special


It was a perfect evening for dinner on the deck. Birds chirping, more types than we could count. Divine early spring temperature with no breeze, yet the scent of something sweet wafted towards us.


OMG, it was the Seville orange! Buds! Flowers! And the top half of this year’s bumper crop still on the tree. It looks like I will have to go into the marmalade business next winter.

Pint-size spring

'Grand Primo' Narcissus

‘Grand Primo’ Narcissus

First out of the ground this spring, from the variety of bulbs I planted in the fall in the new beds out front: the heirloom ‘Grand Primo’ narcissus from Southern Bulb Company. What they lack in flower size they more than compensate for in personality – absolutely luscious little cups erect above the creamy white petals. Each one reminds me of a tiny bird with its mouth gaping open, waiting to be fed – except in this case they’re just drinking in the pleasures of the season.


Mrs. Schillers Dwarf Viburnum obovatum

In the back, we’re getting a start on the white garden with Mrs. Schillers Dwarf Viburnum obovatum, a small shrub – still only about two feet tall – I happened upon last fall at the Arbor Gate. It has exploded in the last week with small white flowers. Note to self: Buy more!

Separation anxiety


Here’s the thing about poppy seeds, or any other tiny seeds for that matter, if you are lazyish like me and sprinkle them into the soil to fend for themselves: They grow. And then, like a roomful of bickering children, they must be separated.

I have trouble throwing out bubble wrap and used tissue paper. You think I can toss dozens – hundreds – of living, green things with healthy roots?


You must, my neighbor Judy said, watching me today as I tried to perform surgery on the poppies that have sprouted in the ‘Martha Gonzales’ beds out front. I’m blaming my other neighbor, Betty, who presented me last fall with a harmless-looking little vial of seeds from Wildseed Farms out near Fredricksburg.

A week or two ago I painstakingly separated two flats’ worth for my friend Suzanne. But it looks like I have enough to cover a small field. I know, I know – keep the strong ones, toss the rest. I went on the attack again today and spread out several dozen in front of the roses.

This was probably not a good idea. I just hope they’re the orange ones.

Goodbye, little seedlings.

Goodbye, little seedlings.