Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Playing Plant Detective

After months of trying to find some time to get away, I finally was able to visit my daughter near Dallas last week.  I knew it wasn't the best time for her, though, as she had a busy schedule at work, but I don't mind entertaining myself during the day, especially when I could enjoy soaking up some warm Texas sunshine.  It was my first visit to her new house, and I was eager to see it, but I was also excited because she had asked me to help with some landscaping.  Now none of my children have the least bit of interest in gardening, so when one of them asks for advice on anything garden-related, I am ready to help with anything they ask!

Armed with a magazine photo and an article on design tips for front gardens, I arrived ready to get to work.  But my vision of coming up with a plan and implementing it over several trips to her home changed drastically once I saw her home in person.  Although her house is beautiful and big, the yard is tiny, typical of most of the suburban subdivisions I saw.  The house is about 15 years old which means there are already established plantings, so what my daughter really wanted was not coming up with a new landscape design, but rather revamping what was already there. Instead of being a designer, I wound up being a plant detective instead.

Granddog Bear enjoys sitting by the pool.
The back yard is dominated by a swimming pool, with a few shrubs in one corner next to the house.  What little grass there is needs to stay as a relief area for her three dogs.

The only concern Daughter had about this back area was a large tree planted next to the pool. She and her husband complained that it dropped leaves and debris into the pool, and they intended to cut it down.  I hate the thought of cutting down any tree, so I took a close look at it to try to identify it.

Now my Southern friends will probably be chuckling at my ignorance, but I'm not very good when it comes to identifying trees, other than the common ones, and this was a tree I wasn't familiar with at all.

The bark was certainly intriguing.  Later, as I explored the front yard, I discovered two similar, but shorter trees on either side of the front foundation and noticed nearly every yard had at least one, if not more, of the same trees.  A yard crew was cleaning up next door, so I approached one of the workers to see if he could help me identify it.  I wasn't sure if he spoke English, but he adamantly replied "Yes!" when I asked.  Unfortunately, when I asked him the name of the trees in my daughter's yard, he also replied "Yes."  I was pretty sure this wasn't a "Yes tree," so I thanked him and gave up:)  Later research on the internet finally gave me the answer--it's a crape myrtle!  Duh...I've always admired these trees on Southern bloggers' posts, but I'd never seen one when it wasn't in bloom.  When I pulled up images of it in bloom, Daughter and Son-in-law immediately agreed this tree was going to stay put, and they would put up with a few fallen leaves in their pool.

The two crape myrtles (Crape or crepe?? I found both spellings used in articles)  in front of her house had been severely pruned, in what some Southern garden writers call "crape murder."  It may not be the proper way to prune these trees, but it certainly is common, as I noticed similar stubby trees all around the neighborhood.

In front of her house, two narrow areas on either side of her front door had already been planted with shrubs and small trees. Daughter wanted only to add some flowers, not expand the area, and with her busy schedule, everything had to be low maintenance.

I offered to trim back all the shrubs, but I soon realized that first I needed to know what they were.  I identified the lovely Japanese maples she had (no, she had no idea what they were) and pointed out the boxwoods and a hydrangea.  But coming from a zone 5b garden to zone 8, I didn't recognize many of the other shrubs.  Thank goodness for the internet!  It didn't take long to identify this colorful foliage as a Nandina.

This one wasn't as easy, though.  It obviously needed some type of cutting back, but I wasn't going to touch it until I knew what it was.

You would think with such distinctive large leaves, it would be easy to find.  But many minutes spent surfing the internet brought up no conclusive answers.

It wasn't until later when I visited the Dallas Arboretum that I had my answer--Fatsia japonica.  Fatsia is hardy only to zone 8, so it's no wonder I wasn't familiar with this plant.  I was glad to see the specimens at the Arboretum were also in the disheveled state my daughter's were; hopefully, with the cutting back of dead leaves and pruning the stems, her plants will look much better soon.

Even though I was eventually able to identify most of the plants for my daughter, there were a few I was still mystified by.  This plant in a small area in the back yard looks like it needs some attention, but I have no idea what it is.

Here's a close-up of its leaves--any ideas??  While shopping at a garden center for some annuals, I noticed some Indian Hawthorn that looked very similar.  After a little research, I learned that it's hardy to zone 7 and produces pink or white blooms in the spring.  Perhaps once this blooms, it will be easier to identify.

Another mystery for me in the front planting--not a great photo, but any ideas on this one?  I also noticed something similar at the nursery and thought it might be an Abelia, but I really have no idea.  Again, once it blooms, it should be easier to identify.

If any of you, dear readers, can identify either of these two shrubs, I would greatly appreciate it.  Although I doubt Daughter will remember many of the plants I identified for her, I'm glad to know myself what she has so that I can answer any questions she might have about them later.  After cleaning up her small planting beds, we added a few colorful annuals and two azaleas that she picked out and mulched everything well.  It wasn't the big design job I had envisioned, but she was happy.

My visit wasn't all work, certainly--I had plenty of time to relax, including a visit to the Dallas Arboretum one day, just in time for the "Dallas Blooms"  celebration. No need to be a plant detective here--this tulipaholic was in a state of bliss surrounded by all these spring beauties!


  1. I guess I must be a true gardener at heart because I kept thinking how much fun it would have been to try to identify the plants growing in your daughter's yard. I am like you in zones that are not familiar to me. All of the diversity in plants between zones is so fascinating to me. I think you will need to go back soon to see things as they bloom. What a great mom you are!

  2. So difficult to plan a garden when so much is already in place. Lets be honest Rose, us gardeners, will always find room for more plants.

    You did well with id.......I have Fatsia Japonica in the garden, it does get frosted once in a while but reappears each year.

    I hope you enjoyed the time with your daughter........

  3. Sally, I didn't realize how much difference a few zones could make--so many different plants I wasn't familiar with. I'm going to ask Daughter to send me some photos when everything is in bloom...or maybe I'll just have to make another trip soon:)

    Cheryl, I had some different ideas than my daughter about what to plant, but she chose what she wanted, which I think is important. Most of all, it was fun to spend time with her shopping and working in the garden. I wasn't too impressed with the Fatsia, so I would love to see it later in the season.

  4. What a fun trip. You got to play plant detective and visit an arboretum not to mention enjoying the sun out by the pool. Warm weather can really perk up the spirits of a cold climate gardener can't it?

  5. I always get confused when visiting different growing zones, not so much that I don't know the plant, but how BIG they grow. So many plants become monsters in these warmer zones. I do hate crape murder though, even though they grow back so fast. It would be better to just plant them where they could grow to full size. You must have had fun though in your ID and plant suggestions.

  6. It's impressive what a difference even one zone can make (since I just moved from zone 7b to 6a)! Don't feel bad about the crepe myrtle - I was asking a landscaper here in Boston if they grew up here, and he had never even heard of a crepe myrtle!
    I don't know what your first photo is, but I do think you are right about the Abelia. It will be fun to see what it all looks like when everything starts flowering! Too bad you didn't get to do more gardening, though!

  7. Chuckling a little bit on the crepe. Tho when I visited Maine several years ago I had a hard time identifying some northern trees. It can be very frustrating! You did well here. I think pittosporum might be the first one. Also, tho the foliage is variegated it looks like and azalea. Good luck!

  8. The variegated shrub looks like an Euonymous of some kind.

    Mama's years-ago yard man used to cut down every Lantana he saw, muttering something very ugly about the only thing they were fit for. When they need pruning, a few old canes at a time keep them from looking leggy as new growth staggers.

    Crepe myrtles planted too close to a building can be cut to the ground yearly and grown as shrubs -- not as ideal as moving them out to grow in their tall glory but better than stubby crape murder.

    For low maintenance flowers, I suggest bulbs. Early and Late Daffodils in spring, early and late lilies of all kinds for late spring and summer, lycoris and rhodofiala for fall.

  9. I think you make a right decision - to plant more annuals and some perennial in the spots. This garden has been planned 15 years ago and now is difficult to change something, Rose.
    Nice tulip garden bed!

  10. You did very well with your detective work. I think it is difficult to change a 15 yr old garden without razing everything to the ground but your ideas are really good, I think. Compromise is usually the best way to go.
    Maggie x

    Nuts in May

  11. Layanee, it was still cold and rainy when I left Illinois, so I loved every warm minute I spent in Texas!

    Donna, I can see why gardeners call this crape murder; the pruned trees really looked awful. Seems like you shouldn't plant them unless you have a spot where they can grow to full size without cutting them back this way.

    Indie, This experience made me realize that if I moved to another zone, I'd have to re-learn so much about gardening! Thanks for the encouragement on the Abelia i.d.; I'm waiting for a photo of it in bloom.

    Tina, When I finally realized these were crape myrtles, I felt very sheepish:) I checked out images of pittosporum--you may be right. I asked my Daughter to send photos of these when they're in bloom, so maybe I can get a definitive answer then.

  12. Jean, I agree--why people plant these crape myrtles in locations where they can't grow to their full size makes no sense to me. Thanks for all the tips on plantings--I did plant some Oriental lilies for Daughter, because they're her favorite.

    Nadezda, My daughter doesn't have time to garden, so a complete change wasn't something she wanted to do. And the shrubs already there were looking good anyway.

    Maggie, I had fun trying to figure out what everything was, and it was good to spend some time with Daughter. No point in ripping everything out if it still looks good!

  13. So many plants, so many possibilities for design. And education. Going to another zone can be like going to another world of gardening. Enjoy your continuing adventures in your daughter's garden.

  14. I would have been completely baffled by this selection of plants. But as you say, thank goodness for the internet. I wonder if a "yes tree" is something like a yes man?

  15. It would be easier if you could start with an empty space but I think you can make something beautiful of her garden Rose. I hope you had a wonderful time together with your daugther.
    Have a wonderful day Rose.

  16. Great post. I have a daughter in Texas, too, and it is so difficult to give her much advice. She doesn't have a pool but the huge expanse of her backyard is daunting in its own right. It is very slow work for a non gardener with a limited budge to know what to do when there are great limitations, or almost no limitations on a blank slate.

  17. I don't think anyone knows whether it's spelled crepe or crape! lol I just use the word crape now, since that's how most people in the South spell it I think.

  18. It looks vaguely like a bay? or is that totally stupid?

    Lucky daughter to have you for her mom.


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