Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Too much of a good thing?

As I've been weeding the back garden paths I've had time to take a long hard look at our garden beds.

Once we got rid of the vast majority of the St. Augustine lawn, my goal out back was to get paths laid out and beds set in with plants that looked good, provided benefit to pollinators, and/or produce for humans. I didn't have a huge budget.  We did the work ourselves and focused on the sale tables, snagging native and well adapted easily propagated non-native plants.  For the most part, this strategy was successful.  Maybe a little bit too successful?

My inclination has always been to let plants that are doing well take the lead. If a plant begins to crowd its neighbors or the path either one I try to divide and transplant it to fill gaps in other spaces.  Why buy new plants, I reasoned, when I had happy plants to easily propagate already on hand?

The problem with this approach is that as the years went by a few well-adapted non-natives got ahead of the game. Way ahead. I only have a few areas that get good sun and a handful of well adapted non-native plants are currently hogging those bright spaces while native plants I sought out specifically to support butterflies and bees are straggling in beds progressively shaded out by overgrowing trees.

I realized the solution is in my hands.  I need to re-prioritize allocation of my sunny spaces and get back in charge of what goes where.  It is time to stop complaining that I don't have any spots left for the plants I want and to create space for them in the sun.  What specifically needs to go?
Origanum vulgare
Oregano.  It is cold hardy, low growing, has tiny flowers that attract skippers and hairstreaks and it out compete many weeds.  It is great to have some on hand for cooking, but realistically I could currently support the culinary needs of an entire Italian village with the amount of oregano I have out back.

Most of it needs to go, hopefully transplanted to areas out front where it can have some running room in shady areas that won't support blooming local pollinator boosters.

Allium tuberosum
What else?  Garlic chives.  I like their strappy leaves, I love their blooms and I do use them occasionally in cooking.
However, as with the oregano I now have enough garlic chives to keep a Chinese province happy.  Time to let some of them go.
Leucanthemum vulgare
Daisies?  I'm looking at you now.  The remnants of a package of "wildflower meadow" seeds planted over a decade ago, persistent clumps of ox-eye daisies have spread (and spread...).  While I appreciate how hardy they are I simply don't want them dominating my beds the way they do.

Though their flowers are a favorite of mine, the large clumps of leaves provide safe harbor for snails.  Daisies turn out to be bullies in the garden, crowding everything else out of their way.

The last plant on my hit list, a guilty pleasure for me - Jewels of Opar.  I adore the tiny flowers and brightly multicolored berries that sway on long delicate stems high above the chartreuse flowers.
They die back each winter and reappear in warmer weather, making them a great companion planting to follow early native blooms.  But they also reseed somewhat aggressively, transplant easily, and I realized with a start the other day I'm guilty of putting them in nearly every bed.

They don't seem to support any fauna other than grasshoppers, snails and deer. I think they are lovely, but not to the exclusion of all else. Onto the chopping block they go.

This coming Fall I plan to replace my line-up of non-native sun hogs with a variety of blooming native plants.  Winter weather for 2014-15 is predicted to be a bit warmer and wetter than usual which would help new plantings get well established before next summer's heat arrives.  And if I lack for ideas about which native plants to choose?  There are wonderful local garden blogger posts to help me figure out what works where, what plantings are companionable, how things will look at various times of the year and how much maintenance to expect.

This is a much more ambitious plan than my usual "fill in the shady gaps" Fall planting program.  I'm excited at the prospect of introducing more pollinator friendly native wildflowers to my garden spaces.  As it turns out, I do indeed have some space in the sun - I just have to open it back up to the plants that properly belong here.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Just like a real garden

Robert Frost famously wrote in his poem The Mending Wall, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall..".  I maintain the same thing applies to paths.

No sooner have I cleared our walkways of weeds and overhanging branches than they repay my opening up of the space to the sun and breeze by growing right back in.  Under some circumstances, I'd swear the regrowth begins in the space of a day or less.

Lately the mornings have not been particularly cool and the humidity is punishing. The hours I've spent weeding and pruning and digging out under the circumstances are what I consider "hard labor".  I'm quite pleased with the results but fear they won't last long, so up go these photos as a record of the work done so far.

Two BEFORE views.  There are an equal number of weeds and self seeded garden plants at play.

As you see, these portions are half cleared.  As is so often the case I nearly forgot to take a "before" shot at all!

And now the AFTER shot.  Reasonably pristine and for all its brevity, a thing of beauty:
The side and far back paths still need work but they remain in shade a greater portion of the day and so are easier to address.  I'll spend 90 minutes each morning there until I finish, while entertaining the hope a majority of the weeds have called it quits for the summer. (I know - that is a ridiculous presumption but I need to pretend or I'm afraid I'll simply throw in the trowel!).

Why bother to show such nuts and bolts, potentially boring photographs of something as simple as a cleared path?  Because I feel many blogs are often filled with spectacular photos of garden successes alone, presenting a deceptive idea of what it takes to garden.  Some blogs remind me a bit of Disney properties, where teams of clean up crews appear from underground tunnels, do their work out of the sight of the public, and then disappear again leaving behind the impression the grounds have somehow maintained themselves.
I am here to say it outright.  These spaces do not maintain themselves! For most of us there are certainly no tunnels, and potentially no "teams". There are only our own hours to spend and our willingness to do the work, whatever it is, when it is pleasant to do so, and as importantly, when it is not.

In the meantime, I'm focusing on the parts of the path already cleared, and enjoying the view for as long as I can.  Weeded! Trimmed! Just like a real garden....

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Probably a Downy, but you can call him Harry

I occasionally see woodpeckers out working the trees on our lot.  As these things go I won't have my camera with me and by the time I get back out with one to take a photo the bird has already moved well out of range.
Linda Blair in the movie The Exorcist has nothing on this guy
Even when I do get photos they rarely turn out.  Most woodpeckers seem sort of shy and on top of that they are very VERY busy feeders.  I can't tell you how many shots of woodpeckers I've excitedly taken only to discard in frustration when editing.
Once I get the shots I've taken of a woodpecker off my camera and onto my computer, I often can't identify the type or really even clearly see what they are up to.  It is an ongoing frustration.
Today proved to be at least partly an exception.  I did manage to squeeze off a handful of half decent shots of this little guy busily working the treetops, but once again, nothing as clear as I'd like, due to my distance and his motion.
I'm thinking this is probably a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) because they are the most common to our area.  That said, in some of my photos, the head looks a little more square and the bill is a little longer than I'd been led to look for in a Downy. There is an outside chance this is a hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) even though hairy woodpeckers aren't typically seen in the hills around Austin.  So yes, probably a Downy.

The calls are distinctive and certainly would helped with an ID but this bird was busy eating and didn't cooperate with making any sound other than tapping on the tree branches.  Speaking of which...
These photos did clear up one question for me.  When the woodpeckers are tap-tap-tapping on the trees, they most definitely close their eyes.  I figured as much.  I know I'd close MY eyes.
Ladies and gents, say hello to Harry, the Downy Woodpecker.  (Probably...)

Monday, July 21, 2014

A mystery out back and other signs of summer

I was sitting at my computer this morning, writing a post for this blog, appreciating the faster loading speeds of a new internet provider.  As I sipped coffee I acknowledged the improved turnaround times and enhanced software and hardware for our television and phones were indeed fair trade for the hassles of ditching a long-standing email address.

The Hub came in from his morning rounds outside and asked if I would do him a favor?

"As long as I can do it in my robe..." I answered.  "No problem" he replied, "could you just go out and see if you can figure out what damaged the hibiscus plants last night? Especially the one on the far right.".
I walked over, looked out the window and was shocked to see denuded branches revealing significant defoliation. I rushed out to take a closer look.
The damage occurred from just above the level of the planters up to a certain height where it abruptly stopped. I carefully examined the dirt in the planters, checked the undersides of the remaining leaves, looked all around in the ground cover surrounding the planters.  I found nothing.  No frass, no cocoons, no rolling, no webs, no signs of anything in either size or numbers that could cause so much damage in such a short amount of time.

In fact, if this hadn't happened in our fenced in back yard, I'd swear this sort of devastation could only be caused by browsing deer.  So what in the world could have done this to The Hub's prized hibiscus plants?

The Hub came out to hear my assessment.  I told him I was stumped.  That unless whatever it was had eaten and moved on, we should go out with flashlights tonight and see if we can catch the culprits in action.

"No need" he told me.  Take a look at the dirt in your garden beds and see if that helps you identify what attacked the plants.".  I did as he directed and had to scratch my head.
Deer tracks, leading right over to the hibiscus.  I was shocked. "But how did they get in?".

"We forgot to close the gate last night after the cable installation technician finished up", he said.  And apparently that was all it took. One night, one slip up, one gate left open and a deer considered that all the invitation it needed to casually stroll into our previously protected back yard to help itself to a generous treat of hibiscus leaves.

Mystery solved. (Pilot error.) Deer bugs!  Back to the post in progress.

I wrote recently about the appearance (visually and aurally) of annual cicadas, sure signs that summertime has hit its stride in Central Texas.  Other signifiers of the season?  The mockingbird favorites, berries ripening on the poke salat plants (Phytolacca americana)
and not quite so far along, berries on the beautyberry bushes (Callicarpa americana).
In another ritual of summer we watch for the reappearance of two hummingbirds that thrill us with their aerobatics, consistently vying for dominance of the feeders out back.  

Interesting fact about hummingbird feeders.  Some of the first were designed by and for photographers who desired feeders without a perch to better capture the more visually interesting "hovering" shots of birds sipping nectar. I'm not after action shots so the feeders I favor feature a perch for the hard working little birds to sit and take a load off if they so desire.
Regardless of my intentions, when the two hummingbirds that routinely fight over our feeders are in combat mode, they sip on the fly.  It is only occasionally one of them will have enough solo time to relax and sit while feeding.   I like that.

Even more rarely, one of them will set up a lookout perch on the nearby hanging bells.  That makes me ridiculously happy, because, awwww.

When I see one of these tiny birds perched, I forget for a moment how aggressively fierce they are when establishing or defending what they feel is "their" territory.  At rest, they remind me of sleeping toddlers.  They look deceptively innocent and even sweet.
Happy summer, all!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The beauty in the beast

A hunting we will go....a hunting we will go, hi ho the derry-o, a hunting we will go.
If you are hunting snails (and I have been), then you want to do so fairly promptly after any reasonable amount of rain has fallen.  Snails turn out in droves when the world is wet, rendering it easy to pick them up and off various surfaces, to either relocate them to an area where they will do no harm to your most coveted plants, or (ahem! cough!) alternately to utilize a beer "bath" to reduce their numbers.

Some might consider snail hunting an unpleasant task, but I do not.  Call me crazy but I've been enjoying my snail hunts immensely.

Snails are so much easier to capture than the grasshoppers I'd been hunting previously.  If I don't find many snails I feel great, because, hey!  My efforts to knock down their numbers are obviously working.  If I do find lots of snails then Yay!  I'm spending my time well and accomplishing what is clearly a necessary task.  As long as I am snail hunting rather than, say, weeding, I'm a happy gardener.

A side benefit to snail hunting is finding hidden treasure. When I'm paying close attention to everything happening from ground level traveling up some two feet or so?  I discover a lot that I'd ordinarily miss when taking the longer or more elevated view.

Case in point?  This is a time of year when we have a lot of annual cicadas caroming around. There are four or five types commonly found in our area, each with a slightly different song. They bounce into walls and fences and at times even people, sometimes rendering them a bit insensate.  The bugs, I mean, I've never known one to harm a human.  A couple of years ago this cicada slammed into me and fell dazed to the ground at which point I picked it up and took this photo.  A few seconds later it recovered and flew noisily away.
Please focus only on the insect and we'll just ignore that pinkish alien looking hand for the moment, yes?

These insects raise a great racket as the weather warms, but in doing so they have become what many consider to be an essential part of the Central Texas summertime sound track.  The designation for their genus, Tibicen, comes from the Latin for flute-player or piper.  (Some entomologist out there had a very wry sense of humor.)

Due to their speed and erratic flight paths it is somewhat rare to get a good look at the insect itself.  What Texans are much more familiar with are the discarded exuvia, or abandoned exoskeletons, skins the nymph sheds after it emerges from up to eight feet underground, to take its place as a mating adult.
These beastly discards are to be found everywhere this time of year.  Visible signs that an adult annual cicada emerged, dried its exoskeleton, and noisily moved on.

That's why I was excited out snail hunting today when I discovered a newly "hatched" adult cicada, clinging to its recently shed exoskeleton.  As the insect's exterior hardened off and dried out, the coloration became more distinct.  Aaaaand as is usual with identification, I immediately ran into trouble trying to narrow the field for this specimen.  It is clearly an annual cicada, a Tibicen, and past that?  Your guess is probably better than mine.

No matter what specific type it is, here's how it looked this morning when I first spotted it at 9AM:
Mostly green.  Then I went back to check in on it at 11:30:
Now the darker patches are becoming more distinct.

It was still close to the same spot at 2:30 in the afternoon and had likely achieved what to a more discerning eye than mine is its distinctive adult coloration.  By 4:00 PM it had flown away.
In their more voracious nymphal stage these insects can cause tree or crop damage if present in large numbers but the adults don't feed.  They are only interested in one thing:attracting a mate to reproduce which for the cicada means sing-sing-singing, all day and all night.

Cicada mating songs are a familiar and dare I say even comforting aural backdrop to summer in Austin though I'd be lying if I didn't admit there are some hot humid afternoons when I wish they'd just shut UP! Just for a moment.

That said, I'm grateful to the cicada's more silent garden partners, the snails, for getting me out and forcing me to pay attention after last night's rain. Without the snails I would have missed the entire show today and that would have been a shame, don't you agree?  In their own very noisy way, annual cicadas are about as beautiful as they come.  And that is something worth singing about.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A place at the table

If you have ever left pet food of any sort sitting outside, you know you can't leave it unattended for long.  Whether dog or cat food either one, if it isn't directly providing for the animal you intended, it will soon enough be providing for a host of other opportunistic feeders.

Meet Socks, a feral cat who adopted our family in November of 2012. She won't come in the house or let us pet her, but she spends most of the day hanging around the garden beds and back deck, supervising our outdoor activities.
I keep bird feeders stocked with seed, front and back. Rather than have those turn into some sort of feral kitty snack bar, the second or third time Socks showed up I decided to put cat food and water out for her in hopes of keeping her well fed and dampening her natural predatory response.  Socks would eat a varying amount each time, but she very often left a few cat food pellets in her bowl.

As the weeks turned into months, I stopped watching closely every time after I'd put the cat's food outside and often enough I didn't bring the food bowl with its left over pellets back inside promptly. This meant the cat's bowl became a regular enough food source to attract the usual scavengers of a slightly larger sort.
And more recently, the few remaining cat food pellets regularly left over in the bowl have begun to attract attention from an unexpected source.
How much does this dove want that cat's food?

I've watched this particular little drama unfold several times over the past few days.  This cat has never shown signs of aggression towards anything in our yard.  But this is a tolerant attitude I'd never expected.

Now that I know Socks won't defend her food, I try to pay closer attention and get the bowl back inside whenever she has finished eating.  Those cat food pellets are chicken based, and whether or not it might mean anything to that dove to know it is scarfing down a fellow fowl?  I find it a little unsettling.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Please, (please!), don't eat the daisies

I haven't gotten much path weeding done lately.  Mostly because I've been busy as one of these
Honeybee on Datura
focused on finding and eliminating my burgeoning population of Aztec spurthroat grasshoppers.  
In the meantime I hadn't noticed until this morning how very many of these were appearing.
very many.
Scrub snails (I think), mostly in and on the clumps of daisies.  As the sun gets higher in the sky they retreat to the undersides of the leaves where they rest out of sight.  But. I know they are there now.  They can't run or hide.
And at least snails can't hop away.  One or two morning sessions with...hmm. What is the most efficient and yet most humane way to eradicate snails after you've plucked them out of your daisies?  I'll do a bit of research on that and get back to you.  Or if you have a tried and true method please let me know. Relocation?  Perhaps letting them sink into oblivion in a beer bath?
In other less annoying news, now that the potted succulents are well established, I moved them out to the triangular bed behind the bench where they'll get more of the sun they love.  Rearranging where pots go in the garden is easier than transplanting, and a lot easier to "undo" if the move doesn't seem to be working out.  It is also a whole lot more pleasant than weeding the paths.  Oh those paths.  Keeping them weeded is the largest single project consistently "in progress" around here.

Optimistically, it shouldn't take me long to pluck up and dispatch the snails. That's the good news.  Then I'll have no substitute "work" to use as procrastination for the path clearing.  That's the not-so-good news.
Cyrano Darner (Nasiaeschna pentacantha)
At least I won't suffer for lack of supervison.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Holey Smokes

I'd been seeing a really discouraging amount of this
around...which means I had too many of these.
Way, way too many.  Meet the Aztec Spur-throat, also known as Aidemona azteca.
I think of them as little monsters.  Most of the ones shown here are less than a quarter inch.  They may be tiny eating machines but they pack a huge appetite. Though Aztec Spur-throats reportedly prefer flowers, the ones around here seem plenty content to broadmindedly gnaw holes in the leaves of just about everything I have growing.

At their most colorful as youngsters in their various stages (referred to as instars) it is not known why these little tykes are so distinctive.  The best guess is to avoid predation by birds as their patterning mimics other common garden occupants that sting.  Because reportedly, birds think they're quite tasty.
"Order up!".   I tried to be patient and allow the birds around here to handle (read:eat) this problem on their own but honestly, my feathered friends weren't getting the job done.  I was forced to take matters into my own hands. Literally. I made multiple trips to every garden bed each day carrying along my inelegant Soap Bath of Death. Bent over like some oversized crane, I did my best to spot and then dunk every grasshopper I could, attempting to knock the population down to more manageable levels.

Not what I consider a pleasant way to experience my outdoor spaces.

Which is why I'm relieved to report, after several weeks of effort, that now when I go out and view my garden beds, every single plant is no longer riddled with holes. A few of the fastest growing plants even have a couple of leaf sets up top that are beautifully intact.
Many (many!) grasshoppers routinely escape my hunting expeditions so there is no worry I'm decimating a population. As attractive as they are - and I'll admit they are quite striking - these Aztec Spur-throats are considered to be "quite common where they occur".    I'm just helping them out a bit with family planning.  I won't get all of them and they won't get to eat holes in all my plants.  That's a fair trade as far as I'm concerned.