Beauty from the Garden Helps Lift Spirits on a Gloomy Friday

This is not the first of these jungle cactus (epiphyllum) that I have posted on my blog, but at 7 o’clock this morning, the amazing bloom certainly helped brighten up the day.

I could be grumpy about so many things this morning.  I spent the third night without AC.  Thankfully, with the tile floors downstairs and all the ceiling fans downstairs stays relatively comfortable and with the windows open and box fans pulling in air I can sleep upstairs at night.

Tomorrow I will plunk out the money for a new AC system  I’m keeping the furnace even though the AC company would have liked me to have pulled out everything.  There are way fewer days where we need to have the heat on here in southeast Texas in comparison how much we use the AC.

Last night was the first night I have stayed in my house without Annie.  I took her to stay with my neice until the new AC is in.  The temperature was only up to about 90 yesterday, but I just didn’t want her to get too hot if the thermometer goes up higher today.  Also with the workers in and out tomorrow putting in the new AC, my house wouldn’t have been a good place for her.  I even plan to get myself out of the way once they are working.

So because of the heat and not having Annie there, I woke up early and decided to crank up the computer, only to find out about all the senseless deaths in Colorado.  I really don’t understand how people can be opposed to more stringent gun laws.  I think most people get wiser with age, but obviously that is not universal.  In my opinion, we would be much safer and saner today if strong gun control and legalized marijuana had been made law back in the 1960s.

With those thoughts on my mind, no dog to feed and give some lovin’, and a little extra time before having to get myself on the road to work, I had a chance to take in the grass that I had quickly mowed last evening and all the plants and flowers that are thriving after the 12th straight day of rain (.25 in. yesterday).  On another day, I might have missed this amazing jungle cactus (white epiphyllum).  But there on the other side of the barbeque grill, in full glory, popped out this wonderful flower, only the third one so far this year.  Had I not spied it this morning, it would have been completely wilted by the time I arrived home.

After a few snaps of the camera, I was able to jump into the car in a much brighter mood than only moments before

New Little Camera Given Its First Test on the Dog Walk

Right out of the box--a none-too-big one at that--my M532 is a cool blue. The pic was taken with my old camera, a Nikon P100.

I used to have a good little digital camera which I used for photos on my blog.  It was a nice touch-screen gadget, but after a bounce or two on the ceramic tile floor, “it no worky good.”  When I looked for a replacement, I thought I’d better myself and went for a bigger Nikon–not one of those PROfessional type ones, but definitely too big for a jeans pocket.  I like the Nikon (P100); I even took a class to learn a bit more.  Even so, I missed having a camera I could carry with me anywhere, and, I just use my cell phone as a phone.  I know it can take photos, but I’ve never been into using it that way.  So, I’ve  been hankering for awhile for another small camera.

The other day Best Buy had an online sale, and I saw this Kodak M532 would be coming down to $59.99 that night.  There’s a Best Buy store just down the road, so I decided to go there to check out the instore pricing, but they don’t stock that camera; however, cameras with similar specs of other brands were significantly higher, so when 12:00 AM came around, I hit the “buy” button.

This afternoon, after doing some other running-around (yeah, I still have a few vacaction days left), I spied the small box on my front porch, where the UPS driver had left it.  Multi-tasker, I am not, but I opened the box as I munched on a late KFC combo (late–I mean the time, not as in “dead”), all the while trying to keep track a break-up lawsuit on The People’s Court (I’ve got to get my fill of daytime TV before I go back to work).

When dog-walk time came, I got Annie leashed up for our usual walk around then neighborhood and stuck the little Kodak in my pocket.  On the way, I took a few shots, and here are the results.  Though, the small lens does have some limitations, I like the clarity of the pictures.  For 60 bucks, this camer was a good buy, maybe not best buy, though I did buy it at Best Buy.  (Yeah, lotsa people get a little punchy at midnight, which is what it is right now.)

Annie at the top of the stairs debates about going for a walk. (This photo makes me wonder about the flash on this little Kodak.)

This is only a small part of the agapanthus in my favorite yard of the neighborhood. I like my own yard, but there is still a lot of work to do before it can compete with this one.

When you look at the people, my neighborhood appears very diverse, but no matter the ethnicity, many seem very conservative.

On short walks, these crape myrtles at the entrance of the subdivision are our destination. They are at their best with the heat of summer.

Heavy Storms Passing Through Houston Left Many Roadways Flooded

The garden rain gauge shows 1.8 inches, for a total of 2 inches in the past 24 hours (1/09/11).

Annie barked at the bumps of thunder as I showered for work this morning.  Then the .20 in the rain gauge gave evidence to some showers during the night which I hadn’t heard.  However, the weatherman’s predictions weren’t enough so that I was still surprised by such darkness that I could barely see the other downtown building across the bayou from my office window.  There was enough street flooding by 2:00 PM, and with the expectation of more rain to come that we were told to go home.  Once the traffic loosened up and I had passed through a stretch of I-45 that was passable only in one lane, the rest of the drive was easy.  Coming into my part of northwest Harris County, the grey clouds started to lighten and only intermittent drops hit the windshield.

My rain gauge showed about 1.8 inches, and with the .20 I had tossed from the glass tube in the morning–a total of 2 inches.  By looking around the yard and neighborhood, it seemed like we had gotten a good soaking rain–just what we need after the long dry spell of last year.  We were fortunate not to get the 5, 6, and in some places 7 inches (as reported by the TV) that helped flood the roads and even rise into houses and apartments in some parts of the metropolitan area.

Holiday Road Trip and Day Trips To Boot–All Made for a Great Winter Break

Wind turbines of the Smoky Hills Wind Farm line the wintery horizon in pastures along the Lincoln and Ellsworth county line, not far from Wilson Resevoir.

A wet, grey afternoon with some unexpected early hours off from work make it a good time to try out one of my Christmas gifts.  I received a set of silicon baking pans, so the square one is being used for brownies–mix-type–with a lot of goodies added.  We’ll see if I pack them up to share at work.

I can hardly remember a better Christmas since I was a kid back in the Santa Claus days.  I can’t put my finger on it exactly, maybe mostly because I was prepared and things went as planned.  I even enjoyed the shopping and wrapping gifts, which sometimes I find tedious.

With the car all loaded the night before, Annie hopped onto her place on the passenger seat, and we headed out the morning of the 23rd for Kansas.  Even at the more than 11 hours (mostly stops for gas and a dog walk here and there), the drive wasn’t that bad.  The weather was mild and putting the car on cruise for long stretches of the interstate made the drive almost easier than my two hours each week day of commuting to work.

Needless to say, it was one of those Christmases of too many presents and too much food, what with a table-filled buffet spread at my sister’s and her kids and families.  Then the next day we headed off to my brother’s, the second year in a row that I was together with my two brothers and sister for Christmas dinner.  Until last year, there were a good many years in between that for one reason or another we all hadn’t gotten together for the holiday.  I think we all realize that we are a pretty lucky group that have our health (yeah, we all have a prescription for high blood pressure, but, hey!) and get along well to boot.

I headed back to Houston on the first day of the new year, but before that I spent some relaxing day drives with my sister as part of what I would say was one of the best vacations for a long time.  One of my goals during the trip was to load a cooler with some Kansas cured meat.  I like to go back to the very store that I went to with my dad when I was a kid and pick up smoked sausage.  Back in my tag-along days, it was called Klema IGA; now it’s Wilson Family Foods, in Wilson, Kansas.  The store hasn’t changed all that much, but it’s still a good store for a small town.  I wish I could have broad back some of the fresh meat from the cooler because there’s no comparing  it to plastic, no-taste stuff I find in the big name super markets out here in the suburbs.

Another place we like to go is Brant’s Meat Market in Lucas, Kansas, about a 20-mile drive that passes by Wilson Resevoir, which is much more impressive to me these days than it was when I passed by it back when I was a college kid going to and from a summer job.

Locally, it's called Ralph's Ruts (Rice County, Kansas). This is one of the few places where you can still see the Santa Fe Trail, which was dug out by the thousands of teams of wagons that passed through in the 1800s.

Geese feeding in a field near Odin, Kansas. These are part of the large numbers of ducks and geese that stop annually at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area not far away.

The parking lot at Meridy's Restaurant in Russell, Kansas. The buffet is loaded with mounds of fried chicken, homemade mashed potatoes, and gravy that rival Mom's. It's basically a "have-to" on every Kansas trip. (It's right off I-70 if you're making a trip through western Kansas.)

Over the several day trips, we didn’t go but a county or two away from my sister’s house in Lyons, Kansas, but each outing held a new discovery or re-discovery in the central part of the state where I grew up.  My car brought back with it some dried Kansas mud from some of the few dirt roads that had not but a few days before been plowed clear of snow.  I can say that even though I’ved lived a good long time outside of Kansas, I’ve still got some of that same dirt in my blood.  (I’ve got other photos that I wanted to include, but WordPress is kicking my butt right now as I try to insert them.)

This old limestone schoolhouse has been empty and looked the same since I was a kid riding by on the school bus. This is one of the landmarks I was looking for on a day trip filled with memories. This was also the road that kicked up all the mud onto the sides of my car.

The train still passes by the local wheat elevator in my hometown of Dorrance, Kansas, pretty much the way it has for many years.

Despite the Heat and Lack of Rain, There Are Always Surprises in the Garden

A magnificent early morning discovery; this jungle cactus flower (cactus orchid) nearly hidden from view by the oak tree.

I don’t know what my M.U.D. bill will be this month, but with such a long period without much moisture, I’ve been watering a lot.  The vegetable garden and the grass get a shot about every other day, but the side bed, where the sun beats down, and most everything in pots need a good soaking every day.

This morning Annie and I went out at 6:30.  I was refreshed enough from a good night’s sleep that the bed didn’t lure me back even though it was Saturday.  Instead, I sprayed on a healthy dose of mosquito repellant and turned on the hose to go after the pots on the patio.  As I doled out generous amounts of water to the various plants on the patio, my squinty, early-morning eyes spied something white as I squirted the water towards some plants perched on a couple of random benches alongside the fence.

Upon closer look, that white blur was a bloom from one of my jungle cactuses (cacti, if you will), something that I had never seen before.  I was given a couple different varieties of these quite a number of years ago by a colleague, and a few years ago added another that I had liked because of the unique formation of its stems, but in the 10 or so years that I’ve had them and grown more by planting pieces into other pots, none of them have bloomed until now. 

I went inside to get my camera to snap some pictures.   It was a good thing that I did because by the time I finished my puttering outside, maybe an hour later, the bloom was all closed up. 

I don’t know a lot about these jungle cactuses.  which are sometimes called orchid cactus, and the more scientific name is epiphyllum.  After doing a bit of reading, I found out that some of them are night-blooming. Because I hadn’t noticed the oncoming bloom before, I have no idea if today was the first day it had bloomed or if it will be open again tomorrow morning when I take Annie out.  I hope so.

Surprises are part of the enjoyment of gardening:  they can be grand surprises like this cactus flower that I had never seen before or simple surprises like a cluster of yellow beans hanging from a plant I was sure I had checked carefuly just the previous day.

Always Important: Getting the Right Tool for the Job

The Bissell 3-in-1 Vac (The porcelain chicken is not an attachment.)

From time to time on here, I like to recommend (or criticize) products and services that I have purchased or used.  When I first moved from an apartment to my own home, I had to buy quite a number of items that I had never needed previously, especially those used for the lawn and garden.

One task that I had never been satisfied with was taking care of the downstairs floor, which is white (or nearly white) ceramic tile.  This tile was obviously what was put down when the house was built in 1985, and some have suggested that I replace it with wood flooring.  However, since I moved in, the tile floor has grown on me:  the white reflects the light and makes the rooms feel larger than they are, but even more importantly, these floors are one of the big reasons that the downstairs stays so cool even in the heat of a Houston summer.  On the other hand, in the winter, they can be cold, but area rugs with good padding help insultate in places where one sits.   Anyway, staying cool in the summer is a much bigger deal here than staying warm in winter.

The big challenge has been keeping these floors clean.  Light-colored floors certainly show the dirt, but when they are clean, you know they are clean, something you can’t be that certain of with darker floors.  Most of the dirt is what I track in from outside.  Despite having a good, brush-type mat at the back door, pieces of oak leaves and other specks come in.  I don’t think I can blame Annie much for this, but she does like to drag her kibble around, so a bit of the crumbs can be found here and there.

I’ve tried a number of ways to clean the floors.  Most of the dirt is loose, so some type of sweeping is needed more frequently than mopping.  I’ve used dust mops and brooms for sweeping, then a wet mop or the Swiffer.  I even sometimes dragged the cannister vacuum down from upstairs (there’s mostly carpeting up there).  No one method or combination seemed to give the results I wanted, and getting the end results that I wanted also felt like it took more effort that it should.

Finally, after some thought I decided to try some kind of electric broom.  When I went looking, I found many kinds, but the one I picked ended up not costing a lot and does exactly what I want it to do.  For $20 and tax, I brought home the Bissell 3-in-1 Vac.  It’s really just one of those small hand-held vacuums that comes with an attachable handle and a couple of accessories: a floor and rug attachment with wheels and a crevice tool.  It’s corded with about a 12-foot cord.

This is just the tool that I needed for doing quick, efficient cleaning of the loose dirt on the floor.  Though it’s small, it has good suction, enough to pick up loose kibble, pieces of leaves, and other dirt with no problem.  It’s light-weight, so it’s really just the thing for cleaning stray cobwebs from the ceiling corners and molding.   That job takes a lot more coordination and maneuvering when using the long tubes and hose of the regular vacuum cleaner.  One tool I wish had been included is the brush, in order to do blinds and other dusting. 

When the job is done, just dump out the dirt into the trash; there are no bags to replace.  Wrap up the cord, and stow it away until next time.  It’s very compact, you could even store it on the side of the pantry.

It easily snaps together and comes apart, so I’ll be using just the hand-held vac the next time I clean the car.

A Sunday Drive: In Search of Bluebonnets

Barely out of the car, Annie is panting in the hot sun at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park. These were some of the few bluebonnets we encountered.

Having finally accomplished the long-put-off doing of my income taxes before noontime, and with the yard and garden work already finished for the weekend, I coaxed Annie into the car and off we headed out 290 in quest of bluebonnets.

The bluebonnet is the the Texas state flower, and for a few weeks in spring, the roadsides and pastures can be ablaze in color from the bluebonnets and other wildflowers, especially the Indian paintbrush

Without seeing a glimpse of a bluebonnet, we drove as far as the quaint, old town of Chappell Hill and turned onto a side road.  This asphalt lane, like so many other roads in the Texas Hill Country, seems to be filled with natural beauty and history.  It never ceases to amaze me how on one piece of land you’ll see a humble dwelling that probably was once a share-cropper’s house, and then, not even a quarter mile down the road, a 6 or 7 figure “swankienda” stretches out into the acreage.  But these, along with the green meadows and wooded creeks, make for a drive that forces you to go at a speed slower than that of Granny going to church.

After about 50 miles of driving, a small, hillside field showed off its indigo glory, but the cars and motorcycles that were already stopped left no place to pull over and try to take pictures of a small dog romping amongst the bluebonnets.

So on we went a few miles, and ended up at Washington, Texas, which is the place where the Texas Declaration of Indepedence from Mexico was signed.  Many years ago, a big part of the area was made into the Washington-on-the-
Brazos State Park
.  It’s really a wonderful place, not too overdone with the history part.  There’s a museum and a visitors center, but there are also places to picnic and lots of trails to walk and discover the history as well as nature’s beauty.

With a 92-degree south wind pushing at us, a maybe mile-long walk was about enough to do in a guy and a little dog.  I’d brought water for her, which she lapped up when we got back to the car, but after getting the AC going, I began looking for a convenience store to find a cold drink for myself.

We did find some bluebonnets in the park, but either it’s still a bit early or the drought has caused the bluebonnets to suffer this year.  Whatever.  We had a good day on our quest, finding more than the flowers.

Independence Hall, the site of the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence. This looks like a replica to me; maybe some of the boards are original.

Some of the flowering plants growing along the pathways. The pinkish-purple appears to be a native verbena. The white blossoms on the other plant were pretty, but the stem looked very prickly.

The park has many trails to wander, some along the Brazos River. Here and there, youll find informational signage, telling about the history of the site, but these signs do not interfere with just enjoying the tranquillity of the area.

Pieces of history, like this old water well, are evident throughout the park, but because the park has not been "over-developed", the visitor can almost feel like he is discovering artifacts.

Located outside of the state park, current-day Washington, Texas holds hardly more than some kind of eatery and a post office.