Sunday, August 23, 2009

New Favorite Irrigation Head / Tree Inventory

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I wasn't nuts about most of our irrigation heads. Either the mist was too fine or the spray went too far or not far enough or the flow was too controlled or not controlled enough.

So we tried a couple of new (to us) flavors of irrigation this weekend, and I found one that I particularly like: the dripper stake. Unlike plain spaghetti, which can release too much water and sometimes wriggles around, delivering the water to the wrong spot, the dripper releases a robust but adjustable flow of water and is permenently pegged to the ground. Its height also allow provides better dispersal than a regular drip head or plain spaghetti. Low splashing and a heavier stream of water means less evaporation or drift. At the same time, the visible water output makes it easy to monitor the system as part of one's daily routine.

The dripper stake in action

Here's what it looks like fresh from the baggie. They come in 3-packs that cost about $4 a pop, which is a little more costly than I'd have liked, but for reasons of both plant health and water economy, I think they're worth it.

The dripper stake

I also finally replaced some of our mushroom bubblers with flower bubblers. These were a washout. We don't have sufficient pressure at the moment to get that umbrella of water I was looking for. Instead, the flower bubblers seep in exactly the same way as the mushrooms did. Moral of the story: 9 bubblers on a single zone is too many.

The long-desired but somewhat disappointing flower bubbler.

Tree Inventory
Last week I got some calipers from the TNLA Expo. I've been meaning to measure our young trees by height, but measuring their diameter is much simpler, and, besides, allows me to justify owning this nifty piece of plastic.

My calipers are a very flimsy rendition of this tool, posted by the Friends of Sligo Creek. They are demonstrating the correct way to determine the height at which to measure the tree's trunk: 5 inches up, or where the tip of the calipers reach when the tool is stood on the ground.

So here's the inventory:
1. Quercus buckley (Texas red oak) - 1"
2. Quercus macrocarpa (Bur oak--west side) - 1.5"
3. Tillia sp. (Linden) - .75"
4. Carya illinoiensis (Pecan--garage) - 7"
5. C. illinoiensis (Pecan--back corner) - 6.5"
6. Taxodium distichum (baldcypress--2/3 dead) - 2.75"
7. Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem' - 2"
8. Quercus polymorpha (Mexican white oak) - 1.25"
9. Chitalpa tashkentensis 'Morning Cloud' - 1.25"
10. Cordia boissieri (Mexican olive) - .75"
11. Quercus laceyi (Lacey's oak--southeast) - 7/8"
12. Taxodium mucronatum (Montezuma cypress) - 7/8"
13. C. illinoiensis (Pecan--by juniper) - 5.5"
14. Q. laceyi (Lacey's oak--gazebo) - 1.25"
15. Gingko biloba (Chinese maidenhair tree) - .5"

Not Measured (too big, misshapen, or unloved)
16. Melia azederach (Chinaberry)
17. Sapium sebiferum/Triadica sebifera (Chinese tallow)
18. Ligustrum sp. - mist house
19. Ligustrum sp. - pond
20. Ligustrum sp. - shade garden
21. Fraxinus sp. (Ash) - garage
21. Fraxinus sp. (Ash) - 10th St.
22. Juniperus ashei[?] (cedar)
23. C. illinoiensis (Pecan) - Ave. F
24. Quercus virginiana (Live oak)
25. Populus sp. (Cottonwood)
26. Lagerstromia sp. (Crape myrtle)
27. Celtis laevigata (Sugar hackberry)
28. Robinia pseudoacacia 'Purple Robe' (Black locust)
29. Quercus macrocarpa (Bur oak) - pond
30. Sophora affinis (Eve's necklace)
31. Sophora secundiflora seedling#1
32. Sophora secundiflora seedling#2
33. Sophora secundiflora seedling#3

* I am not receiving any remuneration from RainBird, Mister Landscape, or the Louisiana Nursery & Landscape association for product placement. Unfortunately. On the other hand, I'm not really endorsing RainBird or Mister Landscape over any other particular line of products. They're just what you get when you go to Lowe's.

**The notepad is loot from last weekend's TNLA Expo. I made sure to pick up pens and notepads from all the Louisiana-related vendors. In this way I express my loyalty for my native state.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Pretty pots at the TNLA Expo

Last weekend Matt's company went to the Texas Nursery & Landscape Association annual expo in Dallas, and they were nice enough to take me with them.


Look at this: there were ball and burlap trees there that reached to the rafters! There were hip new cultivars! And there were tchotchkes--my word, there were tchotchkes. The lure of the free does something truly preculiar and chemical to the human brain. I collected more cheap tote bags, branded sticky pads, and caliper-measuring devices than I have any use for. But it was all free, you see. In the words of Tom Lehrer, "More! More! I'm still not satisfied!" (He was talking about smut, not freebies, but I think the impulses dwell in adjacent areas of the reptilian brain.)

It wasn't quite the Chelsea Flower Show, but it's got some of the same intense, plant-nerdy vibe paired with (differing magnitudes of) flamboyant virtuosity.

So here's some of what I learned.

Trendy Plants
Here are the cultivars that kept popping up all over the place.

This funky lime-and-pink petunia, called 'Lime Bicolor' from a series of petunias called--not at all pretentiously--"Petunia Sophistica."

This deeper, more intensely blue plumbago, called 'Imperial Blue' (sadly, a bit wilted in the picture below).

This compact Magnolia grandiflora, charismatically named 'Teddy Bear.' It has unusually fat, rounded leaves with prominant brown fuzz on the underside.

This green-and-purple mimosa, 'Summer Chocolate.' It blooms pink, although the foliage is so striking that I suspect the flowers are almost an afterthought.

This blooming millet, 'Jade Princess.' Matt, who's more of a grass fetishist than I am, was immediately sucked into its gravitational field.

'Summer Red' maple. But does it grow in the Austin area? I asked, skeptically. It grows everywhere, the salesman replied with bland confidence.

Plants to Grow

I'll probably end up giving some of the trendy plants a try--maybe we can find a home for the 'Imperial Blue' plumbago; I'll probably end up tucking a cluster of "Petunia Sophistica' cultivars somewhere or other. But the ones below are ones I really, really want.

Bismarckia nobilis, the Bismarck palm. Even though it's named after a historical figure whom I have always loathed and despised, I love this fantastic, huge, beautifully colored palm, which, I am assured by people who--well, want to sell me a palm--will grow beautifully in Elgin. Matt did say that we weren't to plant any more trees on accont of already having rather a lot of trees on the property as it is. But of course a palm isn't a tree--it's just a very attitudinal grass. And so skinny! It will barely take up any room at all. And so majestic. People will think we're very important and special if we have a tree like this in our yard.

'Hearts of Gold' redbud (Cercis canadensis). Well, yes, technically, this one is a tree. But it's just an ornamental tree, which means it's more along the lines of an overgrown shrub. Actually, I think I'm still fonder of 'Forest Pansy' redbud (you can sort of see one behind the 'Hearts of Gold'). It's red-purple-dark green and so pretty. Back when I worked as Fusion, there was a little wooded area between the garage and the building, and in that area was a redbud. During the fall its leaves changed, and from the garage you couldn't see the dark grey branches--all you could see were these few golden leaves floating in the dim morning light. So, so lovely.

Quercus robur 'Regal Prince.' Uh, and this one--hey! what's that? over your shoulder! Yeah, this is also a tree. Look, I like trees. Leamme alone. The thing about this is that it's an oak that grows like a smallish Lombardy poplar or hornbeam. To people who live in civilized climates in which you can grow Lombardy poplars or hornbeams, this may elicit a big 'ehn,' but we can't grow either of those things (to the best of my knowledge. Admittedly never tried it. Neither has anyone else I've ever heard of, which can't just be a coincidence.) So if you need a very tall but narrow column of foliage to define a boundary or block an ugly view or dampen noise, your choices are junipers, junipers, or junipers. And I know that RP grows here because the nursery around the corner, Bloomers, is growing one. Their staff didn't actually know what it was, but when I saw it at the expo, I immediately recognized it. They told me that they had bought a bunch years ago, and that they took forever to sell, which is why they eventually popped one in the ground. "Forever to sell"?!? How is that possible? It fills a really difficult niche and is also quite unique within my experience of oaks. Buy it, silly people! It's dead useful and it grows beautifully!

Quercus virginiana cvr. 'What is That?' So 'Regal Prince' was unique in my experience of oaks, until I saw this. It appears to be a fastigiate (with upright, vertical branches) live oak. A thing that makes my brain bend because the characterizing quality of live oaks is their broad, spreading crown. What would a fastigiate live oak look like when it reached maturity? Sadly, I'm not likely to find out, since there was no one at this booth to answer my questions.

And speaking of hornbeams, a couple of nurseries did actually bring some hornbeams (Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata') to the expo. Both, oddly, were from Tennessee. One of their reps also tried to make a case that hornbeams could be grown in Austin as well as in Tennessee, because, she said, the climates are so similar. I know she meant well, but No. I've been to Tennessee. There's green stuff all over the place. I guess they must be leaves, but unlike the leaves around here, they're not grey, tiny, and covered in a scurfy, hairy, or waxy protective layer. I exaggerate slightly, but if I hear one more easterner complain about how their summers actually get into the *gasp!* 90s, I'm going to... be very unimpressed with them.

Turffalo. Turffalo is, apparently, an improved cultivar of buffalograss blended with zoysia. Like buffalo, it's supposed to be low water and minimal maintenance. I'm a fan of the low water concept, so I'm interested in this turffalo. I asked the rep if it would out-compete bermudagrass, which, as you know, is a problem here at the hacienda. Nothing, he told me grimly, can out-compete bermudagrass. Apparently, they have a multi-step program on their website for eliminating the bermudagrass before planting the turffalo. Mostly consists of blasting the stuff with Agent Orange and detonating small, carefully timed thermonuclear devices. Sigh...

'Scarlet's Peak' yaupon holly. This is a new cultivar that's actually due out next year. It's a 'Will Fleming' competitor that improves on the former by (1) not splitting as it ages. WF tends to become lumpish and misshapen as gets bigger. And (2) being famale and therefore putting on attractive red fruit. From the look of the sample, I would say that it is also taller and has smaller leaves.

Nannorrhops ritchiana (Mazari Palm). A cold-tolerant, clumping palm with pretty silver foliage. The internet is divided about whether or not it can withstand shade, but I'd be willing to give it a try to replace the sad little palmetto wisp that passed on to the Swamp in the Sky earlier this summer.

Do It Yourself
I also got some arts-n-crafts inspiration from the displays. There was a florist ball studded with Tillandsias on a stick--but it would be even neater to hang the ball from a copper pipe in the garden. Another display used Spanish moss to make a garland and studded it with larger blue-grey Tillandsias. Somehow, I could make that fit into the shade garden...

Another display had turned some of the huge glazed pottery they sell into rainwater collection units. Brilliant! His were bright blue, but I think apple green would work better for our color scheme--and they'd be decorative and functional.

Random Pretty Stuff
Finally, I got to spend a few hours at the Dallas Museum of Art on Saturday. I loved these big flower/parasol/glass bowl things in the cafe.

I also really liked this simple Roman necklace. I'm gonna see if I can replicate it, albeit in something less pricey than gold and emeralds.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Irrigation Heads: A Portrait in Parts

The irrigation system has now automatically turned itself on and off three times since we got the east and south sides of the house hooked up. Seems to be working very well. There is still a lot of crispiness, but I think it's a relic of the pre-irrigation days. Within a few weeks we should know for sure whether or not the system is doing all that we want.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd summarize what I've learned about the common types of irrigation heads you find at LoweDepot.

Mainly, what I've learned is that I'm not nuts about any of the options, but let's look at them one by one.

Spray Heads / Shrub Spray
These release a fine, light mist in fixed patterns. Adjustable-pattern heads allow you to set the pattern from something like a 10-degree to a 360-degree radius. Most commonly used in beds. Some, like the one below, emit two tiers of spray--a top tier to reach farther and a bottom tier to cover the area very near the head.

These sprinklers are driven by water pressure and are not hooked up to electricity.

I dislike the fine mist, because I don't think it penetrates heavily mulched or weed-barriered beds very well. I aslo dislike the fact that the fine spray is so easily blown off-course by the wind.

180-degree spray head pop-up sprinkler in the shade bed

Spray heads can also come in other spray patterns, like skinny triangles, squares, or--as in the example below--skinny rectangular strips. We have two of these, and I think they are the least effective heads in our whole yard.

Rectangular spray head by the gazebo

It is possible that if we had installed two skinny rectangles with the heads at opposite ends facing each other, that the double coverage might have been more effective. Spray patterns are indicated on the head labels using simple geometric icons like the ones below. #1 is what we currently have--one on either side of the gazebo. The red dots indicate where the head is relative to the spray.

If we had #2 + #3 facing each other on either end of both sides of the gazebo (total of 4 heads instead of 2), we might have had better success.

Rectangular spray patterns

Rotary Head
My preferred forms of spray head is this, the gear-drive rotor or rotary head. It puts out bigger, heavier droplets, which presumably do a better job of penetrating the mulch. These also come in adjustable patterns, which is the only kind I am inclined to buy at this point. Our approach is so experimental that the flexibility they provide is really handy.

They only come in variants of circles (half-circles, quarter-circles, etc.).

The down side is that the shortest of these that I know of is a 15' Orbit model. In a shrub bed, 15' is often a bit much. They are most frequently used for watering lawns.

Small rotary head by the study door

With all kinds of irrigation heads, you are supposed to strive for "head-to-head coverage" (which we unfortunately did not know when we installed the shade bed irrigation). This means that you want the outermost spray of one sprinkler to just reach the next head, and you want the outermost spray of that head to just reach your first head. While this seems like propaganda to sell more sprinkler heads, experience suggests that it is also good advice to achieving full coverage. Without head-to-head coverage, you tend to get scanty irrigation under the arch of your spray.

With rotary heads, using a head-to-head arrangement is more than usually important because they shoot a forceful stream that aims a minimum of 15' away. If you don't have overlapping spray, you'll get doughnuts of relative dryness.
Lowes' illustration of head-to-head coverage.

There are two kinds of bubblers: mushroom bubblers and flower bubblers (sometimes called "flower-head bubblers"). These refer to the shape of the spray, not to the plants for which they are appropriate.

We only knew of mushroom bubblers, and installed them in our Mutabilis rose Zone. They don't really spray, so much as seep gently. The head is basically designed to improve over a simple garden hose by slowing the flow so that it sinks in rather than runs off. The one below is fully open and on (they are usually adjustable flow.)

Bubbler in the mutabilis bed

In retrospect, I wish we'd chosen flower-head bubblers instead, as they pop up a little and emit several streams of water from multiple holes around the top of the head in a narrow (~2') radius.

Both are designed to soak deeply, which is great for small trees and shrubs, but I suspect the flower-heads achieve a slightly wider radius.

Spaghetti Tubing
Spaghetti tubing is like bubblers in that it is designed to soak, not spray. People frequently put emitters on the ends of spaghetti tubes to slow the flow down and simultaneously increase pressure in the irrigation system. For our roses, we generally prefer to just use the tubes as is in order to deliver more water.

Bubblers and spaghetti tubing are the most efficient forms of irrigation because they deliver water directly to the roots in large enough quantities to penetrate mulch and weed barrier, and with little to no interference from the wind.

The drawback to the spaghetti is that it is extremely specifc--it disburses water in a pretty tiny radius (~6-12"). Spaghetti best serves a bed with a relatively fixed population, mostly of shrubs. If you change out seasonal annuals or herbs, you'll constantly be adding new tubes and tying off old tubes, and as the tubes sometimes wander, some of your seasonal color will probably end up underwatered.

A headless spaghetti tube in the rose garden

Open 3/4" Tubes
This is not a particularly good solution--we will probably be changing them out for bubblers. Three of our trees just have open 3/4" tubes. Our arborist told us to mollycoddle our young trees by turning the hose on more or less full pressure within the little levees for about a minute every other day. That should be enough to fill up the levees, which should provide a young tree with the water it needs. This open tube approach was an attempt to automate that task. Now that the trees are older, they could probably use a slower, deeper soak.

3/4" Tube on a Quercus polymorpha

Finally, here's the irrigation computer we're using.

12-station irrigation computer

We got the "12-Station Super Dial - Outdoor" irrigation computer. It wasn't till I visited the Orbit website a couple of minutes ago that I discovered they have a range of products beyond the few available at LoweDepot. I've been so programmed by the LD folks that I often forget there are other home improvement store options. For example, I'm not nuts about any of the tubs on display at LD, and I periodically slip into tub-related despair because I forget that there are other stores that sell tubs. There is, in fact, a whole internet full of tubs. All of which is to say that although this unit is okay-ish to use, I rather wish I had surfed a bit and at least considered buying online.

I mean, look at this beautiful thing:
Fancy irrigation computer

It has a remote control! I'm sitting in the living room; it starts to rain; I just reach for my trusty Orbit irrigation control station remote control and BAM! irrigation cycle deferred! Plus, it displays in blue. Ah, well. Some other lifetime, perhaps.

The system's not perfect, but
I feel pretty good about the fact that our plants are getting at least some water on a regular basis during the drought. The system, which is easily extendable, also means that any new plants we buy have a better chance than, for example, our poor, benighted baldcypress ever did. And hopefully we'll get some fast-moving shade that will help shield the house and bring down our power bills. Shade and water: two things I love.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Here's What the Rain Did

My plants are confused. They languished through June and July, but now that it's August, they're all in bloom. I assume this is their response to getting something to drink. Never underestimate the miraculous power of water to make plants grow.

'Dark Purple' passionflower--it's got several big fat blooms on it and bunches of buds. I love this cultivar.

Indefatigable 'Green Ice' miniature. For some reason, it's turned faintly peachy of late. You just never know with roses.

A rather stressed 'Cramoisi Superiuer' rose

The last head of spiderlily flowers just fell apart, but we've got three new scapes full of buds. I do like a spiderlily--and it glows so prettily in the shade.

And, just because I'm that pleased with it, here's another shot of the passionflower.
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