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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Going Back to Houston

By Jim Bishop.

After 3 years living in Missouri, my father accepted a new job in Houston and we moved to Texas in February of 1970. We had last lived in Houston in 1959. We moved into a neighborhood of newish tract homes. All the houses were one story with same basic floor plan and different exteriors...Spanish, Southern Colonial, traditional, and ours, which was Tudor. Our neighbors were mostly mid-level executives or blue collar workers for oil companies or other energy related businesses. About ½ were native Texans and the others were recent transfers to Houston.

Even though I was born in nearby Pasadena (Texas), the hot and humid weather, the concrete and billboard-plastered freeways, the ugliness of the largest city in the U.S. with no zoning, the pancake-flat and swampy terrain, the lack of outdoor activities, the Texas-sized bugs and the newly arrived fire ants, plus way too many “cowboys” ...all made me long for somewhere, anywhere else...or maybe I was just experiencing a difficult adolescence. Houston boasted that it was the most air conditioned city in the world and without it would have been uninhabitable for 9 months of the year. It was always too dry or too wet, too hot or too cold. All this made it an unlikely place for being outside, let alone in the garden.

Still over time I would start to pursue gardening as a passion. Our house was on a corner lot. The street on one side dead-ended at a 10 foot deep drainage ditch. The ditch was dry for months at a time, but could overflow during the periodic monsoon rains. It was home to toads, giant bullfrogs, a few turtles, snakes (mostly 6 foot long water moccasins) and assorted small mammals and birds. Our side was lined with tall yaupon bushes (Ilex vomitoria). In the fall, migrating cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) would eat the fermented berries and sleep off their stupor on the roof, occasionally tumbling off onto the ground. Between the ditch and our back wooden fence mom would struggle to grow vegetables, mostly tomatoes and strawberries. We piled the grasses clippings into an informal haystack next to the vegetable garden in hopes of creating compost…but it was usually too wet and full of anaerobic bacteria and fire ants to be of much use. On the other side of the ditch, ran a large linear field below high-power transmission lines. In the field grew a variety of plants: Texas goldenrod (Solidago altissima), snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), wild grasses, passion vines (Passiflora incarnata), and a lot of dewberries (Rubus trivialis). Dewberries are the shorter, less sweet, poor southern cousin of blackberries and raspberries…all in the genus Rubus. Mom spent countless hours, and many years, picking dewberries and freezing them and somehow avoiding encounters with fire ants and snakes. Despite adding copious amounts of sugar, dewberries make the world’s densest and sourest pies and cobblers.

In the backyard were a couple of messy native Texas Persimmons (Diospyros texana) and an Eastern Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). If we had a wet autumn, the sycamore (and most other trees) were defoliated by hoards of stinging caterpillars. The back fence was lined with waxleaf ligustrum (Ligustrum japonicum). This was one of the few plants that Texans called by its Latin name. I was surprised to hear Californians call it Texas Privet.

The front yard came with builder-installed foundation plantings and one water oak tree (Quercus nigra). Most of the foundation plantings were new to me. Under the bedroom windows were planted variegated Pittosporum tobira and the corners were anchored with taller yew, (Podocarpus macrophyllus). On either side of the front door were planted a pair of naturally round dwarf yaupon (Ilex vomitoria 'Nana'). A boxwood hedge fronted with mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) grew under the living room window. A xylosma was in the corner between the dining room and living room with Elaeagnus pungens planted under the dining room window. Along the side of the house was a shiny hedge of Buford holly. All except the yaupon quickly grew out of scale for the house and needed monthly shearing. I used a large pair of clippers to trim the shrubs and quickly ended up with a dense mass of twigs at the top. By trial and error, I learned to shorten some of the branches more than the others to encourage new inner growth. I also would angle or round the front and tops so sunlight would hit the lower branches and keep them green.

Our house in Houston after a very rare 1973 snowfall

By my sophomore year in high school, the lawn and garden had become my domain. Besides never doing yard work after my brothers and I were tall enough to push a lawn mower, my father worked long hours and travelled frequently. My mother poured herself into golfing, bowling, painting and volunteer work. My parents golfed every Saturday morning and were gone most of the day. My older brother was away at college and my younger brother disappeared into a haze of hard rock, beer and weed. This left me home alone most of the time and I spent a lot time working in the garden. I started reading all of the garden books in the house and the weekly garden section in the newspaper. I remember one thick Reader's Digest book that had designs for different types of home gardens. I became obsessed with a drawing of a New Orleans courtyard garden with its moss -draped live oak circled by brick paths, azaleas and caladiums. I couldn't understand why, since we had the same weather, there weren't gardens like this in Houston.

About the same time I would meet my first garden mentors. The first was Steve Millard. He was a year older than me, his family had moved to Houston shortly before we did and he lived at the end of the dead end street across the ditch and open field behind our house. Steve wasn't much of a gardener…he said it was too hot to garden… but he knew a lot about plants and was the first person I knew that used Latin names. He had worked in greenhouses in the Chicago area and was knowledgeable about propagation and cultivation. He had an Alexander palm which he called 'Alex' (Archontophoenix alexandrae) growing in his bedroom. His windowsill was a jungle of assorted exotic plants. Steve and I would occasionally walk home from school together and he would point out unusual plants and tell me about them.

My other mentors were the Pruitts, a couple that lived up the street. I would walk by on the way to school and noticed that their garden had more interesting plants and flowers than just about any in the neighborhood. The Pruitts were often in their yard and were always willing to talk about their garden. They would teach me about annuals and perennials, mulching, and candling pine young pines to make them grow denser and shorter. They grew the most impressive pansies, sweet peas, rudbeckias, petunias, verbenas, yarrow and geraniums.

I would attend the “Azalea Trail” hosted by the River Oaks Garden Club. The annual tour includes a visit to the eight classical gardens on the 14 acres of the Hogg estate, Bayou Bend. The gardens were the creation of Miss Ima Hogg, a wealthy Houston patron of the arts and philanthropist. Huge azalea hedges created garden rooms. Several of the garden rooms feature classical statues surround by formal gardens with boxwood hedges. The tour of the gardens ended at the back of the house with a large lawn that sloped down to buffalo bayou. There in the shade of the back porch I met 90 year old Ima Hogg.

Miss Ima Hogg's home, Bayou Bend, on the Azalea Trail tour in the 1970's

Back at our house, to add color to the front yard I added two pale pink crepe myrtles trimmed into small trees under planted with annuals on either side of the front walk. At the time, most crepe myrtles were watermelon pink and grown as large bushes or topped trees. My mother added a maple and some golden rain trees (Koelreuteria paniculata) to the side yard. She grew hydrangeas and chrysanthemums in an east facing bed.

In the back yard, began my first experiments with plants and garden design. I dug the thick St. Augustine sod away from the house and back ligustrum hedge to create planting beds. I dug up roots of the wild passion vines (Passiflora incarnata) that grew in the field behind our house and planted them on the fence behind the ligustrum hedge. I had always been obsessed with zinnias--at first I tried growing them under the house eaves but it was too shady and the heavy rains pounded them to the ground. So in the middle of the yard I created a circular planting bed around a small peach tree. They did better here, but I had problems with corn worms eating the centers of the flowers. At the corner of the house, I grew large cut-leaved philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum) and was so excited to be able to grow a tropical plant directly in the ground. I covered them during hard freezes, but still they would freeze to the ground each year. I started caladium tubers in pots each spring and once the ground temperature stayed above 70 degrees, planted them in the shade, organized by color for a bigger impact.

In the narrow passageway between the garage and back fence, I removed all of the grass and put in a walkway of rectangular concrete pavers with a large planting bed next to the sunny fence. This would be the first garden I created from bare soil. A volunteer Chinese Tallow Tree (Triadica sebifera) in the corner of the lawn separated the area from the rest of the yard creating a secret garden. I scoured the Burpee seed catalogue for the best hybrid seeds to plant. I ended up with tall cleome and amaranth in the back, nasturtiums and double balsams in the middle, and low marigolds and portulaca along the walk. It didn't quite grow in like I expected, but when it was all in bloom it was my favorite place in the garden.

The first garden I designed behind the garage. Dug out the sod, laid the pavers and grew amaranthus, zinnias, cleome, and portulacaria from seed.

Mother would bring home things for me to try in the garden, including one time a small paper bag of these brown things that looked like tiny hula skirts. She said they were some sort of tubers with an unpronounceable name, ranunculus, and were supposed to have beautiful flowers. Not knowing which side was up or how deep to plant them, I dug in compost into a flower bed and took a guess. A few months later up came bright green celery-like foliage followed in the spring by the most beautiful double bright colored flowers on tall stems. I could look at the flowers for hours. I made watercolor copies of antique postcards, attached them to small arrangements of ranunculus and pansies and gave them to all my friends. I soon became popular with all the girls at school.

Jim Bishop has been a member of San Diego Horticultural Society since its first meeting and was elected SDHS President in August 2011.

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