Plan for the spring.

January 19, 2013

Spring is such a wonderful part of the year. Nature is exploding with new growth, buds, flowers… Gardens come to life again. Birds are in love and ready to start a family. Landscapes become abuzz with life and related activity. It’s also the time of year when things get out of hand pretty quickly. Weeds seek their opportunity to take over the world. Plants hurry to grow and multiply – often ending up in the wrong places, overgrown, reseeding everywhere, out of place. It also means our gardens are hungry – they Winter garden (6)need energy to grow, bloom and produce. Winter takes its toll on our landscapes, and spring is the time to make it right again.
The best way to maintain a landscape is to do it regularly, and not wait until things are out of control. Proper trimming and pruning, weed control, amending, feeding, mulching, insect and disease control go a long way when done right and on time. It is easier to prevent problems or nip them in the bud when they arise, then to put out fires.

When thinking about your garden, think about its foundations– soil and balance. If you nurture the soil, it will repay you with happy plants. And happy, strong plants are more resilient, more beautiful, more drought tolerant and better adapted to the Texas heat. Healthy soil means healthy turf. And happy plants mean less disease and insect problems. Creating a balanced eco system in your garden is a key to success. Nature has a way of taking care of its own problems. Plus, a garden alive with plants and wildlife is such a beautiful place to be and enjoy. It is also a great way for the children to reconnect with the outdoors. Provide butterfly food and host source and let them observe a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. Add plants that attract hummingbirds and watch them come back year after year. Start an herb garden and let the kids to be hands on. They can pick their own favorite herbs or veggies to grow. Hummingbird (12)Provide shelter for lizards, geckos and other garden creatures and teach your kids that variety and balance is very important in nature. And in return they will help you keep your insect (including mosquito!) population in check.

There are so many ways to you enjoy your garden. The same outdoor space can provide the perfect entertaining area for the adults and a secret garden, full of wonder and life lessons for the kids. No matter how small or big your piece of land is, you can make it work for everyone.

Design with character.

January 13, 2013

Every house has each own character, and tells us something about the people that live in it. Same applies to landscaping. Every front garden represents us in spirit and style, whether on purpose or by neglect.

2112 pembrokeA mature, nicely shaped pomegranate tree needs space , but can serve as an alternative to the more traditional yaupon holly and the bright pomegranate fruit serves as Christmas ornaments. The tree is semi evergreen and looks quite festive at this time of year. Not to mention the delicious pomegranate fruit that you can pick right in your own garden.

When landscaping your garden, take your house into account. If you have a light painted brick house, think of darker, contrasting colors. Purples and reds stand out nicely and help to define the landscape and add a multidimensional element to the space. If your house is dark colored, pair different shades of green with it, and think texture and layers. Fig ivy can be trained to accentuate architectural features of the house. It is both very graceful and lush look.

We are so used to having most shrubs hedged or conformed to the allotted space. Unfortunately by doing so we often create rigid straight lines and add a ‘boxy’ feeling to the space that is usually already full of straight lines and hard angles. By allowing shrubs to grow more naturally, while still contained and well behaved, we can achieve the more formal look that belongs in the front garden, without the harshness of conventional hedge.

Ornamental trees, such as Japanese maples, yaupon hollies, redbuds and many more, add the height to counter balance the height of the house and create a focal point. If Landscape (14)you have large mature tree on your property, especially multi trunked, consider softening and accentuating it with ferns to create luscious, almost tropical look.

And finally, take a look at your front garden from afar – it allows us to gain a new perspective and look at something familiar with a fresh eye.

There is no need to preach about organic gardening. It is evidence enough to observe the abundance of life and how a healthy bio-diversity creates balance.  Images below illustrate the intertwined nature of life.

Planting the right plants in the right spots, creating food, water and shelter sources enable to create a wildlife habitat even in small urban setting. Our tiny city lot was completely bare when we moved in. We planted a desert willow and Mexican plum among other trees, and added plenty of perennials (Turk’s cap and salvias among many others), we created a veggie garden where there is place for annuals as well. Within a year this completely changed our landscape – from barren and devoid of life to beaming with life. From honey bees to sphinx moths to hummingbirds to lizards and garden snakes and everything in between.

I discovered this year that bees need water, but they drown easily. So I set up a shallow bird bath with stones in it, so that bees have easy access to water and be safe at the same time. They gather around the water source by the dozens every day in the summer.

Desert willow is our hummingbird magnet and never fails. Bumblebees love it too! As well as many other insects. I found several Assassin Bugs on it this year. The veggie garden, with its changing crops and successions of annual flowers, creates an eco-system of its  own. There is always something alive there, busy to gather pollen or lay eggs. We always have abundance of butterflies, which are drawn to the butterfly bush, desert willow, Turk’s cap and salvias, among other things. Damselflies, dragonflies and paper wasps (which are not aggressive and help to control mosquito population) were particularly drawn to the Hyacinth Bean vine I planted on the fence along the chicken run, close to the water source and the never-ending source of pollen – basil.

Lizards particularly like the shade area of the garden, where potted plants are stored on wooden pallets. It also is the favorite hunting ground for Carolina wren.

It is a circle of life – good bugs taking care of the bed bugs, birds, lizards and snakes taking care of the excess of the bugs, spiders weaving spider webs…. Let nature take care of itself… and help only when needed. You will see the difference!

Wheel Bug

July 17, 2011

I have never seen a wheel bug until this morning. This majestic looking bug reminded me of a cross between a stink bug and a praying mantis. I saw it sitting on my Meyer Lemon tree and was fascinated. I took some photos and run inside curious to find out what it was. It did not take long to identify it.

Wheel Bug

Wheel Bug

A wheel bug (Arilus cristatus)  is a predator both in its mature and immature stage. It feeds on caterpillars (including webworms), beetle larvae, aphids and other soft-bodied insects. Unfortunately, they also prey on lady bugs and honey bees. Wheel bugs got their name because of the ridge (or wheel) located on their back.

Wheel Bug

Wheel Bug

They are typically solitary and their population is fairly low. They do bite, but are not agressive, and will only bite when threatened, so do not try to handle them. Their bite is painful and will last for several minutes.

I will be looking out for a wheel bug next time I am in the garden. It is not an insect that you would forget.

I don’t know what it is but bugs seem to love me. The minute I step outside to sit or work in my garden I immediately feel them biting. Mosquitoes, flies, gnats, they all seem to magically appear and swarm my sensitive skin. And anyone who’s been stung by a bee or wasp knows how painful that can be. Fortunately for me I can spray my skin so soft and the bugs disappear as mysteriously as they had appeared. However, unfortunately for my poor green babies it’s not as easy to remedy.

Photo courtesy of Rafal N.

Photo courtesy of Rafal N.

            True, you can spray your plants with an insecticide, but, to me, this defeats the purpose of having a garden. When you spray with insecticides, like it or not,  you no longer have a true organic garden. Most vegetable gardeners choose growing their own vegetables over buying for many reasons. Among them being the fact that what goes in to the garden can be controlled by the gardener and poisonous chemicals are not something we want to be adding to our food. In addition, pesticides are not discretionary, they rid your garden of all insects, good and bad. And most seasoned gardeners understand the difference between good and bad bugs. It’s estimated that 97% of bugs found in your garden and home are either beneficial or harmless.

Ladybug larva by Wolfbix

Ladybug larva by Wolfbix


            When I was growing up it was considered to be good luck if a lady bug landed on you. Well it’s good luck for your garden too. The lady bug is actually a type of beetle and there are a variety of groups. Lady bugs are natural enemies of many insect pests and are capable of consuming 50 to 60 aphids in one day. Amazingly, one single lady bug can consume 5,000 aphids in a lifetime. Which is a very beneficial thing because aphids can cause damage and even destroy some plants and trees. Lady bugs feed on a wide variety of insects and larvae besides aphids, including leaf hoppers, mealy bugs and  mites. Some lady bugs also feed on plant and pollen mildew. In order to attract lady bugs in your garden, consider planting herbs and flowers that are popular with lady bugs such as yarrow, dill, fennel, cilantro, coreopsis, scented geraniums and dandelions.  And, as difficult as it may be, don’t squash every bug you find on your plants because when you do you’re eliminating the lady bug’s food source and they won’t stick around.


Ladybug courtesy of Jeremy Vandel

            There are four types of beneficial insects found in the garden.

  1. Predators include ladybugs, spiders and lizards.
  2. Parasitoids are  insects that complete its larval development inside the body of another insect which it eventually kills. Wasps are parasitoids.  
  3. Pollinators are insects that transfer pollen from a plant’s male reproductive organs to the female reproductive organs in order to form seeds. Bees are the most common pollinators. Some moths and butterflies are also pollinators.
  4. Decomposers/recyclers are insects that break down and decompose more complex compounds and turn them into more beneficial, simpler and more usable forms. The lowly fly and humble earthworm are among these types of insects.

As gardeners, we would do well to utilize and make the most of what Mother Nature has given us. Using and living side by side with the natural gift of beneficial bugs can help us and our gardens as well as the environment. You can read more about beneficial insects here.

Article by Susan Barton, Contributing Writer

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