One Year of Hummingbird Hill!

This November marks the one year anniversary of Hummingbird Hill. It has been a great year. It was also one of the driest years Central Texas has seen for a very long time, which made it a challenge for all gardeners here to grow anything. I have learned a lot of things this year that I would like to share, for many of you will smile and say, "I tried that, too", or, "that's a new one for me"!

One of the challenges of gardening is that plants, even the same species, must be treated individually, and there is usually not 'one rule fits all' method. For instance, drought resistant plants don't need much water, right? But during this drought year I learned that hardy desert plants usually hate to be transplanted, and it takes lots of watering through the summer to get them established. On the contrary, I also learned that some plants listed as water loving, such as canna lilies, are tough buggers and will hang on through the heat with little water, and when they get some they just grow like everything to make up for lost time.

Here's another tip. Sevin kills fire ants better than any other ant poison that I have tried, and it is economical and safer than most poisons. You mix up two tablespoons of liquid Sevin per gallon of water and pour some of it on the ant nest. I usually mix up two plastic watering cans of the stuff, and go around as Lady Ant Godzilla finding all the anthills after a rain. The results are instant, and kills the queen so that the nest isn't just moved somewhere else. This works just as well on giant nests, too, although it just takes a little more of the mix. If you have a small yard where you don't have to walk very far, you can do the same thing with boiling water. Just heat some in a big tea kettle, and carry it out and pour it on the nests.

Cutter ants are a pestilence worse than fire ants, and more difficult to get rid of. When I saw my first cutter ant trail with the little ants carrying along giant pieces of leaves to pull down into their hole, I thought they were cute! I figured that they are helping make compost, much like earthworms and so leave them alone. My attitude became belligerent when I found out they liked my rose bushes best! I thought my large yellow Lady Banksia rose had a disease that caused it too lose all its leaves until I saw those not so cute ants trotting along with it's few leftover leaves! I researched cutter ants and discovered how destructive they are and how they can destroy a fully grown orchard! Now I'm on a mission to stamp out all the cutter ant colonies within an acre of our property! The question is, how, as they only eat the fungus that they grow on your minced up orchard and rose leaves far deep underground. I am having some success starving out the devils by pouring a gallon of Sevin down the entrance holes. This halts all activity for a month or so, when they dig out a new entrance, and then I do it again! Spraying your shrubs and flowers under cutter ant attack with Sevin will halt them from eating it down to the nubs, for once they begin on a plant they won't go anywhere else until it is completely stripped. The problem is that rain will wash the Sevin off and you will have to be diligent to keep your bush sprayed or they'll be back to finish where they left off! I'm glad that Sevin is one of the lesser toxic pesticides. Just be careful that the runoff from an anthill doesn't go down into a watershed as it is very toxic to fish and amphibians. It's not that hard to find the nest when cutter ants are active because all you have to do is follow their trail of leaf bits to the entrance hole, but they are not always active and will seal up the hole until they are ready to go foraging, which is usually at night when you are asleep.

Plants can seem fickle, and you sometimes you have to mess with them to have success. One bush in a row of healthy plants might just sit there, refuse to grow, and just look and sulky. People say that you are suppose to talk nice to your plants. Well, in this case I threaten them like this, "If you are going to do that, you better watch out! I'll dig you up!" (This threatening talk is just to psych myself up to give it the old wack-o.) Here's my best advice for this case. Give it a shot of mild fertilizer such as 3-10-3 with mostly phosphorus to encourage the roots to grow and keep it watered when dry. If that doesn't work, then move it to a new spot. Perhaps it likes a little more shade, or less shade, or the soil has too much clay there. Don't ask me why all the others just like it are happy and growing big. That's just the way plants are. If that doesn't work, perhaps it has a disease, so take a big breath and kill it.

Even a small yard is full of micro-environments where moving things around until they are happy can give success. But, some things just won't do well in Texas, even though they are listed as growing in Zone 8. Perhaps Zone 8 is the limit of their tolerance for heat, or vise versa, lack of winter chilling. Save your efforts for things that like it here. Just remember that they can't grow all our tender shrubs and flowers up north, either. Almost nothing will grow everywhere. Be happy with what God has given you and quit trying to grow peonies in Central Texas! (This is how I talk to myself in the garden. Talking to yourself is a very therapeutic exercise, and that is one reason why growing a garden is also, I think.)

One of the most exciting things I have learned this year from some friends is using a mister and coarse sand to start cuttings of shrubs and trees. Oddly, this works well in the heat of summer. You turn the mister off at night, and it uses very little water. The mister not only keeps the plants watered, but keeps them cool, and the long sunny days makes them grow really fast. Take cuttings about 4-5 inches long and scrape the outer layer of the periderm on the stems into shreds, but still attached, then wet the stems, and dip them into hormone rooting powder (available at garden centers everywhere), you'll have great success for many plants. Some things are harder to root than others, but it's great fun to try. Many shrubs will root in a couple of weeks. Now I keep a pair of pruning shears in my car just in case I find a plant I want a cutting from. Most people don't care if you snip a bit off their shrubs and they will be interested in the method, too. Be sure you snip a nice young pliable shoot, and not an old stiff one. The pliable shoot is much easier to root and has a lot of energy in the stem. Keep your newly potted shrubs in the shade until fall when most will be ready to plant by the next spring.

Another great tip is to stick sharp sticks into your soft cool flowerbeds to keep out the dogs. The flowers will grow up through the sticks, which will help support them in the wind and rain, and completely hide the sticks. Tada! No staking! This is both easy, cheap, and it really works!

Old hay won't sprout grass seeds as the seeds have already germinated and died. Use it to mulch your flowers in the summer. The mulch will not only keep in the moisture, but just as importantly, keep them cooler. The ground temperature is quite a bit cooler than the air, and if you insulate the roots they will think it's air-conditioning, and be really happier, fruiting and flowering much better. This brings up the point that opposite of us, in the north, mulching is more important in the winter, as so many gardening methods are there. Think of a Texas summer as your off season in the garden. Just try to keep your stuff alive and growing until it cools off. Winter is the time to garden in Texas. That is when you plant things and get them well rooted before summer's heat comes again. While our relatives in the north are shoveling ice and snow, we can be out enjoying a beautiful Texas fall and winter!