Dutchman’s Pipe ( Aristolochia grandiflora )

I planted this vine with the greatest of hopes. It grew, and grew and every week I beat it back. Nary a single flower. Tiring of beating the vine back, I cut it down.
Fast grower! Can easily reach 20′ tall in two summers.

Grows best in moist woodland areas, but must have several hours of sun for blooming.

Blooms appear early summer, flowers can be anywhere from 8″ to 20″ on older vines.

This is one of the few vines that is easier to grow from seed than from cuttings.

Aristolochia grandiflora is originally from Central America, there are about 350 species worldwide. Some grow in tropical areas others in temperate forests.

Highly toxic plant – do not ingest.

Spider mites may attack this plant.

This is an interesting plant in that its flowers give off a scent to attract flie. Flies fly into the flower and it traps them overnight. There are hairs inside the flower that point in making it a one way trip down the narrow column to the round base. The flies fly around inside the flower getting totally covered in pollen. In the morning the flower relaxes allowing the pollen covered fly to escape and pollinate another flower.

Swallowtail and birdwing butterfly caterpillars use this as a food source. They absorb the toxins making them toxic to birds that would eat them. Some species of this plant are toxic to butterflies and they can get confused and lay eggs on the wrong species of Aristolochia ( elegans ). So know your species before you plant it.

Time to plant the tomato seeds

Here in Houston we have two tomato growing times. One starts in mid Feb. and ends when the lows for the day are higher than 70’F, one starts mid Aug. and goes until the nights regularly get into the 50’s.

So I went looking for tomato plants last week but none were to be found. Local mom and pop nurseries have tomato plants the big box stores don’t get it and had none. I settled for some ‘Better Boy’ seeds. They have sprouted and I’m proud to say I’ve remembered to water them daily.

I was talking to Nancy at ‘My Garden Spot’ and she told me she had been saving the seeds from the heirloom tomatoes that you find in the supermarket. I don’t know why that thought never crossed my mind, but it hadn’t. I picked up some heirloom tomatoes and will set aside some seeds this week.

To use the seeds from the heirloom tomatoes, save a few on a paper towel and let them dry out for about a week. Then plant as usual.  I tried this last fall and the plants were much sturdier and better producing than the plants I had purchased at the store.

Later I learned on Twitter from Plan Garden that tomato seeds should be fermented first. Purchase your heirloom tomatoes and let them turn to mush on your counter before removing the seeds. This is supposed to help with germination, and is reported to kill disease that may be present in the tomatoes and strengthen the seeds.

I’m told they will not germinate otherwise, but mine did fine with out fermenting last fall. So try it either way or both ways. I did some poking around and most of the old school gardeners recommend fermenting your tomatoes before removing seeds.

You’ll want to put your fall tomato plants in pots or some sheltered section of the garden. There are always a few unexpected cool days early on.

I also only filled the pots half to three quarters full with dirt. Tomatoes are a vine and benefit from having the bottom covered with dirt as they grow.

This’ll be my first fall crop down here. I’m pleased with the summer crop progress over earlier crops so I have great hopes for these guys.

Nancy also tells me there tend to be less bugs and other problems with her fall crops.

So start your fall tomatoes!


Tomatoes have turned out to be one of my biggest challenges in Houston. In New England you bought your tomato plants and stuffed them in the ground on Memorial Day. You might toss down a handful of fertilizer at that time. Then in August you had 8′ tall plants with a bushel full of tomatoes each.

It doesn’t work that way down here. Which is bad. It is so hot down here all the market tomatoes have been refrigerated somewhere along the way and once you refrigerate a tomato you may as well throw it out. It has no flavor after that.

You have two growing seasons for tomatoes in Houston. The first batch goes in Mid March and is done once night time lows stay above 70’F usually late June or early July. The second batch goes in mid August and goes until nights stay down under 50’F. Tomatoes are picky about putting out fruit. You need low temperatures above 50’F and below 70’F for tomatoes to make tomatoes.

More importantly tomatoes do not like clay soil. Not even a little. They will grow but not well and seem to settle in to the spot where you don’t pull them out because they look like there is hope but they never do better than that. You will need to put them in a raised bed or in large pots.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders which is also a challenge in Houston. They need a steady supply of fertilizer. Too much and you will have gorgeous plants with no tomatoes, too little and you’ll have small scraggly looking plants with no tomatoes.

My best success so far has been to pot up tomato plants in large pots. I purchase a bag of fertilized potting soil for each plant and toss in a handful ( 1/4 cup ) of time released fertilizer. Then as your tomato plants grow use a liquid fertilizer that you can spray on the leaves as well as into the soil. When you plant your tomato bury it deep. Tomatoes are vines and will easily root all along the stem that is below the soil line.

Tomatoes need full sun, even here. If you do not give them full sun they will not be able to reach full growth in the short growing seasons we have.

Watering should be steady. Too much water and your tomatoes will split.

Tomatoes are the number one method to get nematodes in your garden. Check the roots when planting them and do not plant any with swollen roots or bumps on their roots. Nematodes are permanent.

Tomatoes are self pollinating. The flowers close and each flower pollinates itself. Feel free to give your plants a little shake to help if it hasn’t been windy.

The Master Gardener’s Handbook recommends the following varieties: Bingo, Carnival, Heatwave, Celebrity, Merced, Sunmaster, and Cherry tomatoes Small Fry and Red Cherry.

I was happy with the Big Boys I planted this summer.

Problems you might have:
Fusarium wilt: The plant is slow growing and wilts. Leaves yellow then brown and there is no fruit. The only way to know for sure is to kill the plant and do an autopsy. If you slice up the stem you will see brown streaks. There is nothing you can do. Future plants planted in the same area will also be infected Try pots or a raised bed somewhere else.

Lack of nitrogen: Bottom leaves are yellow with green veins, grow is slow. New leaves are tiny. Fertilize.

Lack of potassium: Slow growth and small brown spots appear on the leaves. Leaf edges turn yellow and leaves curl down. Fertilize.

Leaf miner: White squiggles appear on the tomato leaves. Remove all leaves that are marked. Apply an appropriate pesticide.

White flies: Wiggle plant and lots of them will fly off. Try a yellow sticky trap out in the garden. There’s not much that works on these guys.

Horn worm: Man these guys are big and ugly! They are exactly the same color as your green tomato. The tomatoes look like some large critter has taken a bite out of them. I pull them off and kill them.

No tomatoes: Too much fertilizer, too little sun, temperatures at night below 50’F or above 70’F.

Tomatoes have cracks in skin: caused by uneven watering.

Blossom end rot: The tomato rots on the bottom, usually from too much water or too much fertilizer or from a lack of calcium in the soil. Add calcium chloride 4 tablespoons per gallon of water.

Brown spots on leaves after a rain: Ozone damage, when the rain comes from the southeast part of the city it may bring ozone with it. The ozone damages tomatoes and peanut plants. While it looks bad your tomatoes should be fine.

More information:
Houston Vegetable Garden Blog
Cover your tomatoes for healthier, prettier produce and longer growing seasons

White Veined Dutchman’s Pipe ( Aristolochia fimbriata )

Black Swallowtail Butterfly
White Veined Dutchman’s Pipe Vine
Caterpillars Dutchman’s Pipe Vine
Flower, White veined Dutchman’s Pipe Vine

Dutchman’s pipe can be grown in a hanging basket, up a trellis, or as a ground cover. Mine grows as a ground cover.

Dutchman’s pipe flowers all summer. It attracts butterflies; in particular swallow tails who use it as a host plant. The flowers on this variation are much smaller than the traditional Dutchman’s pipe flowers growing to only about 1.5″ across. Flowers produce pods when fertilized.

It will die back in winter and re-appear in the spring. It will also get eaten to the ground from newly hatched butterfly caterpillars.

It does much better in sun than shade and doesn’t seem to mind damp areas.

Spreader, like all vines. I find it re-appears in the ground as far as 15′ from the original plant. Slow to spread but spreads in many directions and locations at once.

Dutchman’s pipe is a native of South America.

Pipevines are all toxic. The caterpillars who eat the pipe vines in turn become toxic and less likely to be eaten by birds or larger insects.

Surviving and occasionally blooming during the on going 3 month drought and extreme heat. I love it. I divide it up every spring and it brings a steady supply of butterflies to the garden.

Coral Vine ( Antigonon leptopus )

Coral Vine
Coral vine bush in Hawaii

About a month after we moved in here I gave the yard guy a list of plants to pick up at the local nursery for me. On the list was ‘Bleeding Heart’, this is what he brought me back. While it isn’t the traditional Bleeding Heart we have in New England that I was expecting it’s a pretty cool plant.

It is a fast ever green vine native to Mexico. It can reach 40′. I’ve been sharply pruning him.

It blooms from early June through late fall down here. This one bloomed year round for me.

It prefers sun to light shade to full sun, it’s done much better since I moved it to a sunnier location. It prefers moist soil but tolerates dry soil.

Tolerates Houston summer heat, but not freezing temperatures, this one died back to the ground the winter of 2009-2010 and re-appeared mid May.

I saw some of these in Hawaii and they grew into bush forms rather than vines. I may try to convince mine to grow that way. The vines will wrap thin things but not anything large than 1/2″ in diameter.

This is a show stopper, this is one of the plants that sends strangers to my door wanting to know what it is so they might obtain one. It is also one of the few winter bloomers I have blooming most prolifically through warm winters.

Surviving the 3 month drought and 100’F days but little growth.

More information:
Floridata: Antigonon leptopus