Good Morning, Pavonia

A Rock Rose by any other name would be just as pretty…

Here in Texas, our native Rose Pavonia, Pavonia lasiopetala, just loves the hot summers. When other plants curl up for protection from the baking sun, the Rose Pavonia opens up its flowers and puts on a beautiful display.


A gorgeous metallic turquoise female sweat bee (Halictidae) covered herself in extensive pollen grains by visiting the flowers. This behavior not only identifies her as female in the sweat bee world but also distinguishes her from a Cuckoo Wasp, which is remarkably similar in appearance.

pavoniac08-28-10.jpgThe Pavonia flower closes at night and reopens in the warm sunlight. I just love its closed state, like a little flower puppy or kitten all curled up and sleeping. Here is the Brazilian Rock Rose, Pavonia braziliensis, looking like a tiny peppermint-candy rose bud.

When it opens, it is a striking white version of its Texas cousin.


That’s Firebush just behind it, another heat-loving plant. I’m glad these plants enjoy the Texas sun — they remind us of the good side of our hot summers (but thank goodness fall is approaching).

Pods of Justice

Last spring I was given a bunch of poppy pods for arts and crafts projects. Months later, they were still sitting in the same bag. So the kids and I decided to create a poppy head army for our container plants.


Pod Power!

podsb08-24-10.jpgOur pod soldiers are as cool as they are powerful. Superheroes, even! They protect our castle with determined focus and fair justice.

podsc08-24-10.jpgThey stay planted in their belief that goodness will always prevail.

podsf08-24-10.jpgThey encourage hope and inner peas to grow, and they root out evil.

podsg08-24-10.jpgMost importantly, they defend our indoor plants from the villainous doings of alternative-litter-box-seeking kitties. Yes, they are anti-poop poppy pods.


Security pods defend the treasure of the Money Tree.


Nanny pods will watch over the growth of young seedlings in the nursery each season (thanks, Bonnie, for your great suggestion).


Nay, the tenacious tendrils of evil will not take hold in this home. Poppy pods, you are the light against the shade. Away, all seedy characters! The Pods of Justice reside here! First inner peas, then World Peas! Just think of all the other good that could stem from this.

 Little buds, such defenders of good, welcome to the family. May you never leaf us.


Changes Afoot — A New Garden Path

pathwayh08-21-10.jpgOne might think that August in Texas is not the best month to create a large garden path in the full sun, and that person would be right. But there are some plus sides to creating a new path in August, even in the 100+ weather. One, hiring for some of the work we couldn’t do meant helping out other families in need of some income during what is a slow month for many workers. Two, landscape supply companies were very open in terms of delivery availability and quite eager for business. Three, the heat certainly wasn’t slowing down the growth of Bermuda grass and Nut Sedge, so why let the weeds continue their world takeover by waiting until autumn to work on the path? And four, if we went ahead and tackled the path in August, then come fall we could actually focus on enjoying the garden, instead of crying about the weeds and miserably wishing we had a real garden path.

As lovely as a flagstone path would have been, we couldn’t afford all the necessary stone for our large garden, so we opted instead for a decomposed granite path. The advantages were many — we could always add stone later if we chose, and because no cement of any kind was involved, it would be easy to make changes to the shape whenever we wanted. I knew that I wanted to add an artistic flair to the path later, at the very least, and going ahead with the granite would give me time to figure out what I wanted to do. And the difference in cost was tremendous.


I spent a lot of time doing research on how to create a weed-free, chemical free garden path. According to sources online, the key to keeping a path as weed free as possible is to dig out all the grass and soil about 6 inches deep, then adding in 3-4 inches of compacted road base, followed by a good 2-inches of compacted decomposed granite. The compaction is necessary to keep weeds from growing, but it still allows plenty of drainage after a rain. Note that there is no need for any sort of weed barrier, which is good because weed barrier is notoriously ineffective.

I couldn’t bear to take many pictures of the Before Path. It was so overgrown and too ugly to share, so here’s all you’re getting. Yeah, not pretty, and really embarrassing.

pathwaya08-21-10.jpgMowing had become a joke, and the fact that mowing was even required made me all the more annoyed. You can see why we needed to do something drastic.

The first step was to scrape out all the weeds. Hey, look — something like a path was under all that grass!

pathwayb08-21-10.jpgAnd then the real digging began (this part we had to hire out). I am not even going to pretend that this was easy. Six inches of compacted clay- and rock-filled soil, thick with Bermuda and other roots, does not come out willingly. All that topsoil is now a big hill in the back of our yard, ready for a nice groundcover or vine to take it over — or perhaps we will find another use for it later. Right now it serves as a visual barrier to our wildlife-friendly brush pile. 

pathwayc08-21-10.jpgDuring all of this work, the first round of material arrived. We ordered 3/8″ limestone dust, a fine aggregate base. The scary part was whether we’d accurately calculated the number of yards we needed. Fortunately, we were well on target.


pathwayd08-21-10.jpgThe first layer of aggregate base further helped us to visualize the path to come.

pathwaye08-21-10.jpgWe compacted the dust in thin layers as we went along, until we had about 4 inches of good base. There are different ways one can go about compaction — a tamper or a water-filled roller is an inexpensive option. However, we decided after much discussion that we would go ahead and rent a vibrating plate compactor to help us with our large garden path. It was unfortunately gas-powered, but it gave such amazing results that I don’t regret it. We did use a tamper from time to time as well.


Along the lawn side, we decided that we’d feel better about having some low edging in place. I purchased from Amazon some Master Mark brown composite edging — made of nearly 100% recycled materials. Not only was it SO much cheaper than edging found at the box stores, it is available in 5-inch by 40 feet lengths, and very easy to use. I did, however, get brown metal stakes from a box store, on recommendation from a reviewer. Good call. We’re very pleased. You can see it on the final shots.

If one plans on laying down flagstone, the next step would be to put in 1-2 inches of sand. We had decided against the stone, so we went straight to decomposed granite, aiming for about 2 inches of compacted material. Again, we compacted the layers in 1/2-inch increments, creating a very solid base.

decomposedgranite08-21-10.jpgCompacting in small increments is so very necessary. The reason is three-fold — it keeps the weeds out, it keeps the decomposed granite tight and in place, and it minimizes potential mushiness after a rain.

pathwayg08-21-10.jpgAnd finally, we lined the beds with limestone, most salvaged from our own yard.

pathwaym08-21-10.jpgWe LOVE the results.

What a breeze it will be to take care of the garden compared to how it used to be. And we have had a major reduction in the size of the lawn, so less mowing.

pathwayn08-21-10.jpgThe veggie garden will be a much more pleasant place to work this fall. Excuse the lack of green activity while we wait for cooler temperatures.

pathwayk08-21-10.jpgAnd there you have it. Would I recommend this pathway technique? Yes and no. If you are determined to stay weed free and don’t mind the work and extra materials, then absolutely, this is the way to go. But many kinds of casual pathways don’t need this kind of detail, especially if the area isn’t heavily prone to invasive plants. We, on the other hand, were in a war against major weeds in our full-sun garden, and we wanted to WIN.

Do I wish the pathway was fully flagstone or another kind of stone? Sure, a little bit, but there is a casualness to our limestone ranch house that doesn’t warrant so much “luxury,” though we do use a little flagstone in various locations. The way we went about creating the path adds to its pseudo element of formality. It is clean and defined, and mess has been minimized.

One very nice thing about our large pathways is getting to walk side-by-side with my hubby through our garden (and the dogs not tripping us as they run by).

And Grimm is happy, too — our garden guardian, seen here in his new pathway spot.


The Improved Improved Feeders

Our seed feeder fell a few days ago due to a faulty temporary hook, and it suffered an unfortunate crack in the tube. I have to give out kudos to Wild Birds Unlimited‘s lifetime guarantee. Eddie at the north Austin store repaired my feeder on the spot for no cost, and the only trouble I had was trying to get myself to leave the store without wanting to buy every feeder they had in the store.

I came home determined to go back to the original hook we’d used for years, and I intended to improve the cattle-panel cage we’d created to keep the doves out. Smaller, removable — and it now fits nicely under the protection of the dome. FYI, WBU sells a very nice cage that works with their feeders — I just had excess cattle panel available at no extra cost to me.

feedera08-17-10.jpgAnd sure enough, the doves have officially been fully thwarted. The new and improved cage keeps the doves out — and the squirrels in, haha (one squirrel panicked when my family was heading out to the car and it couldn’t figure out how to go back through the cage openings the way it came in — I had to rescue it by lifting up the dome with a broomstick).

With the smaller cage, we’ve seen an expected slight reduction in the sheer numbers of little songbirds that hang out on the cage at a time, but they don’t have any problem getting seeds. Cardinals and their companions just go right in, and blue jays can now hang from the outside of the cage and grab peanuts from any of the holes they want. They also can fit in the feeder, but it’s a tighter fit than before. The only ones unable to use the feeder are the doves.


I’m just happy because the cage is nice and compact now, and there are no longer excess wires about. And it’s back on its nice sturdy hook. Though I didn’t take a picture of it, I used 16-gauge wire to create a pseudo cage on the top of the cattle-panel cage, so that the cage can rest on top of the tube and still be easily removable when I’m filling the feeder.

The finches now enjoy their thistle feeder in front of our kitchen window — it hangs from a shepherd’s hook, along with a hummingbird feeder (so now we get to enjoy hummingbirds from the kitchen, too).


FYI, I took down the pretty hummingbird feeder my aunt gave me (she knows). See the rust on the top of the feeder? That same rust formed on the inside of the feeder, and that is very dangerous for hummingbirds. Iron contamination kills hummingbirds, and it doesn’t take much. As soon as I saw rust, that feeder came down. 

badfeeder08-17-10.jpgThis is a case where it’s ok to buy plastic (glass feeders are more expensive and they can break, but they are an option, too). Pick a feeder that has zero metal, including copper, and make sure that it is easy to fully clean inside and out. Stick to white cane sugar to make your nectar — for the same reason as above — other sugars can contain iron and hurt the hummingbirds.

With the sun being so hot these days, I’m glad I have so many water sources available to the wildlife, and I’ve seen birds visiting every single one of them lately. I try to be really good about replacing the water every couple of days. Not only is that important for the birds’ health, but you want to prevent mosquito larvae.

birdbatha08-17-10.jpgI’m very happy with all the changes. And the doves are back to foraging on the ground.

According to Eddie at Wild Birds Unlimited, doves need seeds without the shells, so when they consume the traditional sunflower seeds, they don’t get the nutrients they need, and that’s why they always seem hungry — they eat and eat and eat and come back for more. They do like millet, but millet is not a recommended seed for home feeders. Not only does it attract the pest birds that never leave — doves, house sparrows, and blackbirds — but because it’s wasted by other birds, it can harbor bacteria when it sits around too long. If you must use millet, only sprinkle it on the ground, and make sure to only use enough that can be consumed in a day. I don’t buy millet at all — the doves will have to make do with the peanuts and corn. The cage has really helped — we are down to a very manageable number of doves.


Closer, please.

The human eye really isn’t designed to notice things like this. I certainly didn’t at first, not until I was up close, clipping off of few dead Gregg’s Mistflower stems here and there. Even then, at first I thought it was just plant bits caught in an old web. That is, I did… until the plant bits started to move.

babyspiders08-15-10.jpgBabies! Could these be the young of my resident Argiope spider, who made her happy home in my Gregg’s Mistflower ? 

To quote Hannibal Lecter, “Closer, please.”


Little spiders, the world is more interesting with you in it.

No More Bagged Mulch for Me

Today I rant. I’ve had it. I’ve often suspected that the source of the nut sedge (a.k.a. nutgrass) that came into my yard after I started gardening two years ago was the mulch I placed in my perennial beds to help deal with drought. The nut sedge has become a nightmare and it ties with Bermuda grass as my #1 most hated pest plant in my garden. Right now I’m so fed up it might actually push Bermuda to the full #2 spot.  

nutgrassa08-12-10.jpgNow, I do recognize that the sheer act of prepping soil for a garden leads to ideal nut sedge seed germination conditions, but all I know is that I’d never seen this plant in my yard before I started laying down the mulch.

nutgrassb08-12-10.jpgWell, check out what’s growing from this mulch bag itself. How’s this for proof?

nutgrassd08-12-10.jpgI suppose I could be overreacting. I know that these seeds are everywhere. But I’ve noticed that when I pull out VERY YOUNG sprouts from a freshly mulched garden bed, the roots often don’t extend into the soil, just from the mulch. And I have an area in my garden that I added compost to but never covered with mulch. No nut sedge in that area, just in the mulched areas nearby. Coincidence? I think not.

So I won’t be buying this bagged mulch anymore. I’ll be finding another mulch, or sticking with tried and true raked leaves. They’re free, anyway.

And of course I still promote the value of mulch in general — in Texas some sort of mulch is necessary to protect your little plants from the heat, and there are many other benefits to mulch.

But no more bagged mulch for me. Anyone else had similar concerns about it?

Passiflora lutea, Yellow Passionflower

Oh, hey, it’s raining. And I know why. It’s because it’s my watering day (city schedule), and I actually took the time to water this morning. You know what happened last time I took the time to water? Yep, it rained. Yes, Murphy’s Law continues to be in full effect at Great Stems. Also, my son left the electric mower out in the backyard, with the cord still plugged in. That perhaps added to the rain potential. I know I’m repeating myself about this, but hey, whatever it takes to get some rain around here!

Regardless of my pitiful attempt to water this morning, my plants needed the extra drink from the rain and the overcast relief from the 100+ weather and full Texas sun we’ve had lately. The plants I didn’t get to water are right now grateful that nature took pity on them, since I melted in the morning heat and had to stop.

Today I want to highlight a happy little vine I’ve found growing and blooming in my yard. This is one of our native Passionvines — Passiflora lutea — also known as Yellow Passionflower.

passiluteaa08-11-10.jpgIt puts out this adorable miniature version of the larger, better known Passionvine flower, with yellow-green as its primary color. The flower is about 1/2 inch in diameter. Just as cute as a button!

passiluteab08-11-10.jpgThe leaves of the Yellow Passionflower are gently three-lobed and easy to distinguish. They are hosts to many butterfly species — including fritillary and longwing species.

passiluteac08-11-10.jpgAs is often my luck, or more Murphy’s Law perhaps, the Yellow Passionflower plants I actually purchased are very small, while the largest vine on the property is the one that just showed up on its own. I’ve already seen a fritillary caterpillar on one of them — yay.

The larger Passionflower below, Passiflora incarnata Passiflora caerulea, is certainly more showy than its cousin, but I am delighted to have both (Edit: Apparently my plant is Blue Passionflower, Passiflora caerulea, not the native incarnata/Maypop variety I once thought it was. Thanks for the correction, Scott! It sounds like Blue Passionflower is a good vine to keep, so I’m happy to do so.).


I’m trying to collect other varieties of native passionflower, but so far Passiflora lutea is the only one I can say I’m successfully growing. Of course, I have several unidentified vines in the backyard. Perhaps one of them is another passionflower!

Note: I just attempted to go out to take some pictures of the little passionflower vine in the rain. It started raining harder. Gotta love Murphy.

The Object of His Affections

There we were, watching an episode of “Jeeves and Wooster” with the kids (I highly recommend it, by the way), when the nightly toad chorus began. It seemed even louder than usual, however, and I realized that there seemed to be a loud froggy croakkkkkkkkkkk coming from the general vicinity of the front door. Yes, it’s official — the new entryway pond is already a setting for amphibian amore. It’s so toadally romantic. (Yes, I went there. Don’t croak.) 

maletoada08-09-10.jpgWe now have surround-sound toad songs for our ongoing nightly entertainment. Front yard and backyard — makes watching a movie on TV in the livingroom quite… odd.

Checking it out, I found a very handsome Prince Charming singing his heart out for the full-figured object of his desire, who was already busy fluttering all her multi-eyelids at him. Here she is — isn’t she beautiful?

femaletoad08-09-10.jpgSo, funny story. I didn’t realize that the cat had followed me outside when I went to the little pond to take pictures. Apparently I missed a funny scene — when I went to retrieve her just a little while later, I found she was soaking wet, worriedly checking out the pond from across the sidewalk. Both toads were just fine.

The New Pond… and Still Low-Cost

Last summer, we decided to create a very inexpensive disappearing fountain for our entryway, using as many free or salvaged materials as we could. We loved the result at the time, and it cost us a total of about $40. Here’s that fountain that WAS:



While the fountain gave us much enjoyment for awhile, the inexpensive pump gave us some frustration. Sometimes the hose came off. Sometimes a cat or other animal would bump the rocks or hose tip, and water would drain out. Sometimes the pump would just plain stop. Everytime this happened, we had to dismantle the fountain, move the grill, get the pump going again, add more water, and rebuild the stone mountain. The little rocks were a pain to have to move and remove, too. I couldn’t buy any plants to surround the fountain, because we kept having to work with it. To top it all off, the plants that were already there all died in last winter’s hard freezes. And finally, I’d had enough. A change was in order.

We already had the basic set-up (see the link above), so I figured why not turn it into a pond instead? This way, if the pump had any more problems, access would be simple and direct. Plus, we could easily check on the level of the water, and we could support more wildlife, be it toads, dragonflies, or fish. The movement of the water would keep out the mosquitoes. And so that’s what we did.

We (and by we, I mostly mean my wonderful son) dug the hole a little deeper and slid the tub back down into it. Then we lined the tub and the hole with a leftover piece of rubber liner from our backyard pond, and collected some flagstone we’d gotten off Craigslist. The little $21 pump (130gph) we’d previously used officially died in this process, so we upgraded to a $36 pump (300gph) instead. We arranged the flagstone around the pond to hold the liner in place, as well as hide it, and then we added a few extra stones to create a simple waterfall. The rocks we had used for the previous fountain became part of the waterfall. 

epondd08-05-10.jpgImmediately we were thrilled. This was definitely the way to go. The trickling sound of water as you walk toward our front door sets the soul at ease right away. And the flagstone complements the house nicely and ties in to the new porch we’ve been working on it (you can catch a glimpse of it in one of the photos below — it’s been one of our “secret” projects. Not so secret now! And also not officially done, but very soon.)

I brought some plants from the backyard pond, and finally bought new plants to complete the whole bed. We mixed in some compost to the soil before adding in the plants and then used vitamin-rich liquid seaweed to reduce their stress from being planted in July. Since it’s not a full sun area, they should be fine, despite the 100+ weather we’re having.


The plants I selected to surround the pond are mostly non-native. It is a tough bill to fill, that area. Mostly indirect light, with some patches of direct sun during the day — and I wanted small to medium evergreens, for the most part. Nothing could get too wide or too tall. That’s a tough list of requirements for native varieties.

So I chose instead a Sky Pencil holly for the tallest and smallest section of the bed. It will reach about 8-10 feet tall one day but stay within 3 feet in width. Its dark green foliage is a pleasure to see, complementing the entire entryway (which has 3 beds total). Next to it is a bicolor iris. I understand that I’ll have to divide this plant periodically, but I placed it near the sidewalk for easy access. As it gets big, it will look really nice next to the waterfall.

On the other side, I kept the plants smaller, because opposite them in the entryway is a very tall Yew.

A compact Dwarf Yaupon is surrounded by Asparagus Fern.

Behind them, Hameln Dwarf Fountain Grass is a nice accent, its soft plumes swaying slightly in the breeze. I hope it can handle the indirect light — it would probably prefer a little more direct sun than it is going to get. This plant isn’t evergreen, of course, but it should stay pretty nice most of the year and with luck will come back each spring.

eponda08-05-10.jpgAnd in the pond itself, I brought Horsetail Reed from the backyard pond and an umbrella plant that needed some TLC. I also added a bit of submerged Hornwort from the backyard pond for oxygenation. We will probably add a goldfish or some other fish in a few days, so it will appreciate the grass to hide in.

epondf08-05-10.jpgRight away we had our first wildlife visitors. Amazing what the sound of water can do. A mud dauber immediately collected little mud bits from the wet soil from the new plants. And a new butterfly appeared, choosing to collect minerals from the wet flagstone, rather than from the damp soil nearby. It’s a Tawny Emperor.

tawnyemp08-05-10.jpgWith its wings folded upright, it was almost completely camouflaged. But its beautiful tan and brown colors show through when it opens its wings.

tawnyempb08-05-10.jpgTotal costs for the pond itself (I’m not including the previous pump or the new plants, just the cost of creating this one.):

Tub $11 (from original fountain)

Pump (300gph) $36

Rocks — free

Liner — scrap piece — free

TOTAL  $47  

Easy, easy, easy.

The best part of the whole pond experience? Looking out the window throughout the day and seeing a pretty scene. Keeps a big smile on our faces, and it spreads the peace inside, too.   🙂

Sit on it, Potsie

pottya08-05-10.jpgOh, Happy Days!

I finally got around to painting this old wooden chair I picked up at a consignment store years ago. We called it an antique commode chair for years — whether that was its original purpose, we have no idea!

For us, it’s been both a plant holder and a cat bed. I used to keep an ivy in it, letting the vines twine around the seat-back posts. But while painting it, the kids and I decided it would be a perfect spot for our young Golden Barrel Cactus.

pottyb08-05-10.jpgWhen this cactus gets big, it’s going to be a painful pin cushion, that’s for sure.

I’m still deciding whether I want to add other colors to the potty chair besides the purple, as was my original intention. I like the way the cactus stands out with the purple as is, so I might just wait awhile.

Now to figure out where to put it!