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, October 30, 2014

Something borrowed, something blue

What is borrowed?  With gratitude and a tip of the hat to the Sierra Club's "Daily Ray of Hope" feature, this wonderful quote from Lucy Maud Montgomery, author perhaps most famously of "Anne of Green Gables":

"I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers."

What is blue?  Migrating geese. Pointing the way they are going, and going that way at top speed.

I heard them long before I saw them. When I did find them in the sky, the angle of the sun's glare through hazy high clouds blinded me. I had to point and shoot and keep fingers crossed I captured anything before they flew out of range.

For the record, I realize those terms, "Something borrowed, something blue," refer to good luck tokens for a bride's wedding day rather than having anything directly to do with gardening. I stipulate that gardeners however, especially Central Texas gardeners, need all the good luck they can get.

Here comes November.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Border skirmishes

Recently a regular commenter to this blog (Hi Kris!) asked me: how do I keep the mint that is growing in a couple of beds here under control?

The short answer?  I don't.  Mint is only one of a number of uncontrollable plants I have mixing it up in the garden beds here.  My approach is to put bullies in close proximity to each other and hope their aggressive tendencies work to keep each other in check.  Here, the photo that triggered the comment.
In this bed close to our house, there is the mint, a mixture of native wildflowers, a few seasonal vegetables, and at least one native ground cover which other gardeners might classify as "a weed".   The mint has been growing here for years, having originally escaped from a pot.  I dig and pull it out liberally to make room for other plants, knowing more mint is always in there somewhere and will find its way back into the mix.  I can't eliminate it but by the same token, I don't have to worry about accidentally killing it by cutting it back or digging runners out.  And that's fine by me.

These wildflowers (bluebonnets, pink evening primrose, prairie verbena) and native ground covers (predominantly wood sorrel) all have a tendency to take over for part of a season and then go dormant and/or seed out.  They each in turn will fill the empty spots created during the others' dormant spells. All I have to do is keep an eye out for those transitional moments when one plant must yield to the other.  At those times I yank and clip fearlessly as needed.

As is often the case here, this riot of competing ground covers wasn't anything I planned in advance. I had open areas I didn't want to spend money on mulching or simply watch helplessly as they filled with weeds, so I "allowed" these aggressive plantings to provide the weed suppression mulch would otherwise.   The zietgeist here is very Garden of Least Resistance.
Their days are numbered
I take a similar approach with oregano and purple heart in another bed just down the path.  The two non-native ground covers are both troopers, taking heat and low water as well as torrential rains in stride.  The purpleheart grows faster than the oregano does - a lot faster.  It also disappears down to the roots once the weather gets cold, while the oregano stays put with a plant mass aboveground year round.

I think of the oregano as a rock with the purple heart functioning like a wave against it.  You can see how the purple heart is both attempting to grow up over and insinuate itself under and through the established oregano.
I love you, goodbye.
For now at least.  Neither purpleheart nor oregano grows here spontaneously, so both will be replaced eventually soon by some combination of native plants. For the moment they continue to keep each other's borders in loose check as the seasons shift, and while preparations are yet underway I have pollinator approved, attractive coverage.



Saturday, October 25, 2014

Progress made

Oh, best laid plans...gardeners are as familiar as anybody with that promise of "gang aft agley".  At least, I am.

I dug out garlic chives aplenty, transplanted some and passed others along to gardener friends.  I trimmed verbena and dug out Jewels of Opar.  I planted a couple of passalong Henry Duelberg Salvias, then bought and planted more.  I put in tropical milkweed.
I put in more tropical milkweed.
All in pursuit of monarch butterflies.

For whatever reason, that, the attraction and support of monarchs, was the shape "what being a good gardener looks like" took for me this past year.   I was already doing much better in the attracting bees and other pollinators department. Maybe I was just looking for a fresh challenge.

I watched and I waited and saw one monarch.  The butterfly was nectaring on a lantana way across the yard from my especially prepared and well monitored monarch attracting and supporting bed.  It fed there on the lantana (not even a native variety!) for some time and then it exited, stage South.

It seemed the attracting part of that new and improved bed proved itself pretty much a bust.  It naturally follows the supporting part never really came into play.  But I was ready! In case! Partial credit for that.
Even without butterflies overhead I am smitten with the dance the leaves of various pre-eixsting occupants are doing.  Stalwarts of the bed shown above: bluebonnet, mint, verbena and wood sorrel.

Progress has been made, the newer plants are filling in, blooming, and holding their own.  Lack of monarch visits notwithstanding, I think the resulting bed looks pretty attractive.  To me.  The gardener.  I flutter around here a lot.
PS:  As I was editing this I spotted a monarch hovering over this bed.   I asked The Hub.  "Do you see what I see?".  He did, and he said he'd seen a monarch around that bed yesterday as well.

So, shut up.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dramatic Skies (or, Why I Love Gardening)

I am an editor by nature (and probably nurture, but we aren't looking at that today).  Editing is what I do, be it gardening, writing, or taking photographs to share here.

Happily I have an entry-level, you'll pardon the expression, "garden variety" editing function that is part of the photography processing and storage program I use.

Today I am ignoring nature and technology both, to post The Rare Un-edited.

Because it had been so beautiful yesterday morning, I had my camera in hand as the sun rose.  There were gray low lying clouds waiting in place along the horizon.  As I watched, the light went all to pinks and purples. This is what it looked like gazing East this morning from my top deck.  Unedited.
Autumn, you are one dramatic sonofabitch
Occasionally, I lose sight of the best part of gardening (for me).  It isn't the wildlife. I love the company and feel obligated not to mess with creatures who always have (and hopefully always will) live here.  I want these spaces we share to be welcoming, but that does not drive me.

It isn't even the plants.  The more I learn, the more I realize: a lot of my plants choices here have been spectacularly poor.  Much of my gardening success has been luck of the draw and I'm looking to change that.  I'm working to get these spaces (re)populated with plants that theoretically would be growing here anyway.  I do have a certain look I'm aiming towards, one I find pleasing.  But any "plants and planting" motivation is seasonal, at best.

What is at the center of why I so deeply appreciate and avidly pursue gardening?  Gardening gets me outside and gives me things to do there that keep me outside.  The approach I take requires some constant level of my attention to be focused on everything going on outside of our house, from curb to shining curb.

"Everything" of course, including the skies this morning.  Which I am taking another cup of coffee outside right this minute, to sit and stare at some more.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Candle or Mirror?

Edith Wharton wrote: "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.".

I'd meant all along to post about Native Plant Week (October 19-25, 2014) but when I first noticed it was coming up, it was early September and honestly, there was too much work to be done in the garden beds themselves before it would be proper to stop and write about anything on the garden blog.
Mockingbird sitting guard over Beautyberry bush berries (Callicarpa americana)
One chore led to another, you know how that goes, and suddenly, here it is Native Plant Week observed, and I found myself unprepared to celebrate much beyond raising a cup of coffee to the native plants already established in our spaces.
Horace's Duskywing Skipper Butterfly on Augusta Duelberg White Mealy Sage (Salvia farinacea)
"OK", I thought to myself, "I can at least organize something to post and raise awareness a little.".  And right as I was thinking that, THIS popped into my inbox.  Tina of My Gardener Says had already written a lovely (and comprehensive) meditation on why it is not only important but deeply rewarding on every level to use native plants in the landscape.
Mockingbird eating berries off Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria)
I've written some recently (posts here, here, and here) about taking out non-native plants that have dominated certain sunny spots in my spaces to be replaced with natives that better support local and migratory wildlife. I don't really have anything significant to add today, so I'm going the "what SHE said" route.  When it comes to reading about the joys of native plant gardening, Tina's post truly says it all.  If you haven't yet, do drop in and read what she has to say, and then I'm going to challenge you to take it a couple of steps further.
Eysenhardtia texana (Texas kidneywood tree) 
Go outside and identify at least two native plants you have in play at your own place. (HINT: the native plants are typically the ones drawing in the most bees, butterflies and other wildlife.)  The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center's plant finder is a great resource to help you with names and other helpful information.
A mini-grove of Pavonia lasiopetala (Rock rose) coming right up!
Now, make plans to introduce more. You won't be sorry!

Happy Native Plant Week all!  Here's hoping if you aren't already enjoying the additional benefits of going native, that this will be the week that changes all that.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

First impressions

It was the Golden Hour.  You know, that hour of twilight when, especially in October in Central Texas, the air takes on a gentle quality of friendliness that is unsurpassed.  It was inspirational.
I was watching bees nectaring on the Coral Vine (Antigonon leptopus) and considering how relaxed it felt, as a gardener, to have made it through summer, all the way to October.  Our state motto, for gardeners at least, could be "October: Give It Another Go!".

Among the bees I noted a large wasp.  It was hard to miss.  About an inch and a half long.  All black. It evinced no interest in me or the bees, but was rather busily feeding on the blooms of the Coral Vine. I'll admit it right now.  That wasp was big enough that I was a bit intimidated. Anything that big, I thought, would have a big sting, right?  I watched it nervously for a while and when it showed no signs of leaving, went back inside.

It became a daily routine, my going out on the front porch to enjoy the weather and watch the bees only to have the otherwise mellow ambience yanked over to High Alert! level when the black wasp showed up.  I checked several times each day.  The large black figure darting in and out of the blooms was there pretty much all the time.  That wasp had essentially moved in and set up shop.

Finally, doing what I should have done on Day One?  I investigated.  The nemesis of my mellow afternoons on the front porch was a Sphex pensylvanicus, a species of digger wasp.  The common name for this beast? Great Black Wasp.  Unimaginative, but accurate.
It turns out that yup, this is one of "those" wasps, the ones that have a somewhat grisly "catch and no-release" policy when it comes to feeding their young.  However. The type of insect these particular wasps target to support their wasplets are the very ones I hunt myself in an attempt to keep them from devouring everything in sight (grasshoppers and katydids).  Beyond that, these wasps are important pollinators for the various milkweed plants that support monarchs in migration.  It turns out these wasps are a great partner for a gardener working to attract pollinators.

So.  Big they most certainly are, menacing because of their size, perhaps, but definitely beneficial overall for a Central Texan Garden (and gardener).  Great Black Wasps?  I welcome you to these spaces! It is true - in the past I might have foolishly ducked inside when you showed up on my front porch.  Allow me to apologize. That was simply a case of a mistaken first impression.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Climate is what you expect, while weather is what you actually get.  (Thanks to David C. of It's A Dry Heat for that succinct axiom).  

I'd put in multiple passalong plants, spread seed, and planted any number of four inch beauties-to-be during the last weeks of September following on the heels of a four inch soaking rain.  I put in a few more four inch plants and spread more seed the first week of October, expecting ongoing cooler temperatures and gentle rains to serve as my staunch allies in getting them established.  
Why pin so many hopes (and a significant cash outlay) on an October start? Conventional wisdom holds that in Texas at least, it is always best to get all plantings, even natives, well established before the return of summer's Death Star.  We all "know" that October is when the Death Star finally exits, stage right.  

So it follows that plants started in October have the best shot to get growing before any threat of freezing weather occurs. More importantly, they also have the best chance to get roots established before the sun, heat, and dry winds of summer return.  "October starts for happy plants" is a lesson reinforced through years of experience here, and aside from "use natives!" most of my gardening success relies heavily upon the truth of that timing.

This year unfortunately once October rolled around, the weather systems in play weren't quite finished applying the Hot/Dry treatment to the Central Texas area.  With multiple days featuring highs in the 90's along with drying winds and zero precipitation, seedlings and transplants alike were suffering. And I was suffering right along with them.
The options?  Run our supplemental watering system once per week as allotted under the current restrictions keeping my fingers crossed not too many plants would die.  The alternative was to hand water everything, knowing it was the most reliable way to support those new-to-here plants until we saw a return to "normal":cooler wetter weather.

Successful gardening requires the gardener to do a few unpleasant things.  I accept that, but I don't go gracefully.  I griped, I whined, I growled and grumbled.  This hot dry weather was not good for my plant babies. This hot dry weather was not what I signed up for when I turned the calendar page to October.  This hot dry weather was the epitome of everything that was wrong about trying to do anything beautiful in this part of the country.  How, I asked anyone in earshot, could I possibly be expected to work under these conditions?!?  This is October for pete's sake.  October is when the weather is supposed to work WITH us.
Because unfortunately, the areas where I'd put in new plants and spread seeds, were all over the place.  Front yard, back yard, along the edges and smack in the middle of existing beds. Areas including the deer path we are trying to fill in, which has a several inch layer of Slip'NSlide like, not-going-anywhere, live oak leaves on a slope.  A slope I had to carefully traverse while on one leg of the trip at least, carrying two large (heavy!) filled to the brim watering cans.  

And traverse I did.  Back.  And forth.  Standing smacking at mosquitoes while the watering cans filled s-l-o-w-l-y from the nearly emptied rain barrels. Glowering at the sun.  Muttering at the forecast.  

Then today dawned wet and cloudy.  It rained.  It cooled off again. Considerably. And... it continues to rain with colorful rain blobs the predominant feature for our weather map, assuring more to come.  
I am truly sorry for the thousands of music festival fans who will be dealing with a very soggy second Saturday of ACL.  But for the gardeners in our area? This is precisely what needed to happen and not a moment too soon.  A rainy cool day in October?  
This is precisely what I was expecting.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The large and the small of it

Years ago I noted some cosmos seed I'd put out had germinated but was growing in an unexpected way.  The little orange flowers were slow to appear while the leaves were larger and the plant supporting them was bigger than the rest.  A whole lot bigger.  Several feet, in fact.
GIANT! 6 feet tall and no signs of stopping
Curious, I let one of the plants grow to see how tall it would get.  It reached nearly 6 feet and was covered in flowers throughout October. Unlike the hybridized cosmos varieties purported to be in my seed packet, this was apparently a throwback cosmos sulphureus, which varies in height but can reach 7 feet.  The giant plants grew at a fairly slow steady rate until the September rains arrived and then kicked into high gear, putting on another two to three feet in height. Predictably enough with a plant several feet tall covered in flowers that became seeds, it self propagated out fairly widely.

Every year since I've had a handful of regular sized cosmos come up and a handful of the giants as well.  According to Bob at Gardening at Draco, who got giant cosmos seed from a woman he met who worked at a nursery, the cosmos sulphureus plants seed out true to form.  Though I think mine came mistakenly mixed in a packet with the hybridized seed that stay in the 12-18 inch range, I found it a happy accident. I welcomed these 4-7 foot giants.
Hybridized Cosmos, about 18 inches tall
Now I typically pull out all the giant throwbacks with the exception of one or two that seem well placed.  This year's version had just started to bloom. It was kicking into one last growth spurt as it climbed to nearly 7 feet.  And then disaster struck.  I don't know how it happened - there were no torrential rains or bursts of wind, no signs of digging or chewing or disturbance of any kind. One day I went out to weed and water, and the giant had fallen, tearing apart at the main stem.
Regular cosmos at lower left, giant cosmos sulphureus the day before it fell.  RIP, big guy.
I couldn't let those blooms go to waste.  I snipped off all the flowering branch tops and popped them into a vase of water to enjoy indoors.  There is one intact flowering branch remaining attached to the main stem, and it will simply have to carry the reseeding burden for the entire plant this season.
I think these golden flowers are gorgeous, indoors or out.  I am sorry to lose the mass of flowers out in the beds though.  Reportedly, cosmos attracts monarch butterflies, and I was hoping to get some royal visitors here this year. I do have some seed stored from past year's plants (if I can find it!) and I'll put that into play at the appropriate time.  Trowels crossed that will guarantee the reappearance of these butterfly friendly giants for years to come.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy the visitors I am getting, like this Vanessa cardui happily nectaring on Lantana.  This butterfly might not be royally designated, but I am thrilled to have it drop in.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

With apologies to the Rolling Stones

Because you can't always get what you want...

What I wanted, was monarch butterflies.  Monarchs are in trouble as you are probably already aware. Each year they migrate through our area, and I wanted, very much, to be part of some solution I imagine we gardeners might be able to offer.

I bought a handful of tropical milkweed plants having been told that butterflies prefer to nectar at groups of flowers rather than singletons.  I fretted over and brushed off and squished the yellow aphids that seemed even more inexorably and immediately attracted to these plants than any butterflies.
I thought to myself "if it was aphids I was after, I'd consider this a stunning success".  But it is not and was not aphids I wanted.  I was happy to notice a ladybug going after the aphids but that was a consolation prize, not the main event.  Monarchs.  MONARCHS.  Send in the butterflies!

That is when I noticed this beauty out back.  A Papilio thoas (I think), otherwise known as a King Swallowtail butterfly.
These graceful large butterflies like to nectar on lantana, which I have scads of, and they preferentially oviposit on citrus trees.  We have four Meyer lemon trees out back, and also a makrut lime (called "kaffir" by some. As that is a derogatory term in several cultures, "makrut" is now the favored name).
Rather than having to go out and buy anything, I already have growing here in abundance just what this lovely butterfly needs and wants to support its life cycle.
Did I do that on purpose?  Nope, that is just the way the cards played out.  I wanted to attract butterflies and it turns out I have.  Just not the ones I expected.  In fact, as opposed to the potentially threatened migratory monarch butterflies, experts have noted the range and numbers of the Giant Swallowtail are increasing as they expand further northward following the higher temperature averages.
Wouldn't you flee to Canada in August if you could?  Yup.  Me too.

At the end of the day, I still am optimistic I'll attract a few southerly migrating monarchs to stop by the tropical milkweed I am trying to get established for them.  There are blooms in sight, along with more aphids...
Failing any Fall visitors, I'll be watching eagerly for drop ins when the monarch butterfly masses leave Mexico to head north once more next year. In the meantime?  I'm determined to fully enjoy the near daily visits of the Giant Swallowtail.  In the absence of monarchs, I'll consider the swallowtail visits to be just exactly what I need.

This post is part of Wildlife Wednesday, an attempt to raise our specific appreciation of not just the flora but also the fauna populating our outdoor spaces.  Thanks as always to Tina of "My Gardener Says" for hostessing!