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.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

No sky lovelier

November Skies
Than these November skies 
Is no sky lovelier. The clouds are deep; 
Into their grey the subtle spies 
Of colour creep, 
Changing that high austerity to delight, 
Till ev'n the leaden interfolds are bright. 
And, where the cloud breaks, faint far azure peers 
Ere a thin flushing cloud again 
Shuts up that loveliness, or shares. 
The huge great clouds move slowly, gently, as 
Reluctant the quick sun should shine in vain, 
Holding in bright caprice their rain. 
And when of colours none, 
Not rose, nor amber, nor the scarce late green, 
Is truly seen, -- 
In all the myriad grey, 
In silver height and dusky deep, remain 
The loveliest, 
Faint purple flushes of the unvanquished sun. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

announcing your place in the family of things

Have you noticed lately how amazing the display has been each dawn when the rising sun hits our quotidian low clouds?  I've made it a practice this November to rise early enough to have coffee readied, allowing me to stir gratitude along with the cream into my first cup of the day, gazing out in quiet wonder at the shifting pink and gold tones of scattering light.

Occasionally I take my camera outside along with my coffee.  As part of my ongoing "we do SO get Fall color, only it looks like THIS" conversation with family members who live out of state, I try to capture in images the ongoing fireworks in our clouds.   

As I reluctantly turned away from the sun to go back indoors the other morning, I was surprised by the sight of a skein of geese migrating South in absolute silence.  I laughed to myself, thinking this particular flock must be populated with creatures who were simply "not morning birds", preferring to wing their way towards winter sanctuary sans the typical vocalise.    

Overcome with joy, I watched in appreciative admiration until they disappeared from view.  This flock did not announce my place in the family of things with their voices, but as I struggled to imagine their experience of flying through each glimmering dawn, their transit through my morning sky offered me kinship sufficient to the day.

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Simple Precinct of Home

Yesterday I dodged a few raindrops as I dashed into a local polling place to vote.

Once inside, after both my identity and my vote were duly processed, I began a slightly more personal ritual that goes along with my election day experience. One of my precinct judges is an acquaintance I used to see weekly back when I was yet a living pillar in a worshipping congregation.

While this precinct official can still be found in the pews week to week, I can not.  So, if things are slow election wise, we step to one side and take a few moments to get caught up.  

She spoke of a trip they will take later in the month, and how it is the first time her husband has been out of the country since his High School days.  She and I agreed he was past due for a journey.

I've been thinking over that idea, that a person "must" travel, at least occasionally. As is often the case, I am of two minds.  While I thoroughly enjoy exploring "other" spaces, I also believe Dorothy and the Wizard had it right all along, though poet Billy Collins phrased it more elegantly...

How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.

(from "Consolation", via Poemhunter.com)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Like life itself...

Late author (and gardener) May Sarton had this wisdom to offer:

'A garden is always a series of losses set against triumphs, like life itself.' 

As I've worked in my own spaces to take advantage of rain softened soil and cooler temperatures, I've been considering what my own losses and triumphs have looked like this past year.  Though it often felt like a year filled with battles and losses, there were indeed some bright spots.

As a starting point, I'm counting it as a huge improvement overall that I've made good progress in recognizing what I can and cannot pull off given the particularities of our sun/shade ratio and water access here.

For instance?  While I would love a large water feature, in our climate I must keep in mind the cost of evaporation that a long water sluice such as the one pictured below would suffer (this is from a garden in the San Francisco Bay area, not known for their heat/drought issues).  I also know to resist the temptation of complacency after our mild winter last year and realistically consider how large an area of succulents I am willing to cover against the possibility of hard winter freezes, which are predicted to be on tap for 2014.
So maybe I can't have this:
But I can have this:   
This triangular area lies between two large beds I routinely cover during freezes.  The pots will be easily removed to the greenhouse or garage either one.
The beds on either side are already showing multiple bluebonnet and evening primrose starts, so this coming Spring, while my succulents become better established they won't be surrounded by water but will be in the midst of a sea of blooms.  The strongly horizontal lines of the triangular bed provide a sense of order and and will offer visual separation from the massed wild flowers.  It should provide a study in contrasts I'm optimistic will be quite pleasing.

In our beds out front about the only truly sunny spaces all border the street.  I can't really enjoy that aspect of our plantings except when I am driving away or standing out playing chicken with traffic.  I used to rail about doing so much work "just" to enhance my neighbors' view, but eventually I realized I am setting a positive example of what a no-lawn space has to offer, and I routinely have the beautifully back-lit late afternoon view from my own front porch.

Losses?  We do have some.  Much of what we "lost" can be chalked up to the ongoing feeding and foraging by grubs, caterpillars, other insects, armadillo and deer.  We've planted all sorts of natives precisely to support and invite all sorts of pollinators and birds into our spaces.   I can't claim to be any kind of good hostess if I begrudge my invited guests their preferential meals.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar feasting on Maypop vine leaves

Frankly, we chose to live outside city limits in an area wild enough to still boast roaming herds of deer.   While I rail at the damage from deer browse I do so with the reluctant understanding that they were here first (along with the armadillo) and will remain here long after I am gone.
I'm testing a deer repellent spray on these Jewels of Opar to see if I can get a colony established in a shady area out front.
Bambi here is fond of 5-6 varieties out front (and many more I've sequestered to the back behind tall fencing).
A particularly stinging ongoing loss comes from my willfully ignoring warnings about a particular plant's "invasive" nature.  The term "invasive" simply cannot be regarded as an invitation in disguise for me to quickly cover large spaces for a small investment.   The price I've paid in time, energy and loss of desirable plants while attempting to dig out large colonies of invasives I mistakenly employed as "quick-fire ground covers" is high and getting higher with every season's spread.

I've been particularly mule-headed in this realm, having made the same dumb mistake several times over.  My first misstep was with horsetail reed (Equisetum hyemale).  I followed that up with the  injudicious use of asian jasmine which in my situation qualifies as invasive because it sure enough spreads everywhere I don't want it and roots too deeply to easily pull out.  Most recently I topped off my layer cake of perilous plantings with the use of the tall variety of Mexican Petunia, Ruellia nudiflora, in both pink and purple.
I know where the "rue" in Ruellia is derived.  The tall variety, though offering up lovely pink and purple blooms in late summertime, is quite invasive by anybody's reckoning.
I spent hours digging Ruellia out here and have hours to go as I've barely taken one-third of them out.  They've dominated several salvias, out competing fleabane (Erigeron strigosus) and obedient plant (Physotegia virginiana) alike.
I'll count as a triumph that I finally realized we simply will not (and can not afford to) water in ways that will adequately support growing tomatoes in our spaces.  I am much better off buying the seasonally abundant tomatoes offered at local markets and sticking with growing less thirsty citrus, peppers, herbs and spices for my year 'round use.

I recently sent this mini-harvest home with my son who is a professional chef.   Lemongrass stalks,  marjoram, rosemary, thyme, Kafir lime leaves and Mexican tarragon. 

Perhaps a final victory I'll claim for 2013 is the fact that despite significant challenges, I have not completely lost my sense of humor when it comes to our garden spaces.  The careful observer will note the juxtaposition of a modern version of a bottle tree in the upper middle of the photo above, decked out with the requisite blue bottles.  Moving down and to the right please note its companion planting, a bottle brush tree, located in the lower corner of the shot.  It's my version of a garden pun and it pleases me no end.

On balance, I'm giving this year in the garden a check mark in the "more gains than losses" column.  I've learned some hard lessons (the only kind I seem to run up against unfortunately) but I'm putting them all to good use.  

I'm gardening smarter every season, so with a little cooperation from the weather, I'm looking forward to next year potentially being the best ever.  I sure hope you'll come along for the ride - good bad or indifferent - I'm looking forward to sharing it here with you.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Dang it, Bambi!

I'd been testing out some deer spray recently in my front beds.  I was optimistic it would work just as well as the glowing testimonials on its website indicated.  I did note in reading that most of them were filed from the upper East Coast states.  No matter, New Jersey or Texas, whitetailed deer are whitetailed deer, right?


As of last Thursday I'd only had a chance to put out one first coating of stench.  It's how this particular spray works reportedly, coating the plants and leaving the area around them redolent of Eau de Run Away!

It worked on me.  As soon as I got the spray everywhere I thought it should go I knew I wanted to get away.  Far away.  If a deer nose is any more sensitive than mine, the deal would seem to have been sealed.

The back of the bottle promised the smell would fade to fall under human nasal reactivity levels but remain strong enough to repel the deer.  The instructions advised spraying should be repeated every week for a month, after which the protective effects ought to last out the season, rain or shine.

Just as promised, the morning after the afternoon I'd sprayed the residual smell was barely there, and by the end of a full day in the sun, I didn't notice any smell at all.

Cue our recent torrential rains.

I'd wanted to give the spray a fair trial which meant I needed to get out and re-coat all the areas I was interested in protecting.  I knew this would be especially crucial after getting between 4 and 5 inches of rain in the last round of storms.  Ideally I should have gotten that second coating of spray down yesterday (which was Friday) but life intervened.

"Saturday!"  I thought to myself.  "Tomorrow morning early I will get out and spray the beds.".

Fast forward to this morning as I was lying in bed idly trying to decide if it would be better to have my morning coffee  or go out and spray first before enjoying my coffee at leisure.

But it was Saturday morning, officially the start of a new weekend, and there was just no contest.  Coffee first won hands down.  As the drip coffee maker was chorgling out it's "I'm wrapping it up guys, get your mugs ready" noise, I glanced out through the glass insert in our front door at the areas designated for my apr├ęs-coffee Spray Session the Second.

And that's when I saw her.
So gardener lady, these are the areas you want to protect?  Right about here?  Here where I'm lying down right now?  
A large doe, situated not 18 inches away from the Jewels of Opar plant babies I was getting ready to spray, lying down actually slightly pressing up against one of two small pointy agaves I'd recently transplanted there in hopes of preventing exactly that.  She was calmly chewing her cud, looking like she'd been comfortably situated there for quite some time.

I opened the garage door, grabbed a broom and then whacked it on the driveway hard, making what I hoped was a noise close enough to the alarm the deer send each other by stomping when they spot anything that might present any danger.

It was only after the doe got up and ambled off that I noted this guy, who had also been bedded down, just a few feet away in the ground cover on the far side of my daughter's parked car.

He had been shadowing his lady, (or his lady-to-be?).  Far from being alarmed by my presence, he stepped carefully over to where the doe had been bedded down, and thoroughly checked out the scent she'd left behind, before moving down our drive.
I honestly believe this had nothing to do with the potential efficacy of the deer spray.  The instructions clearly stated it would take more than one application to establish a base coating even under dry weather conditions, and we've surely had the opposite of that recently.

The sad truth is, these beds have been hosting this doe (or others in her herd), and on occasion her babies,

OK they are cute, but they are cute eating machines.
and now apparently, her boyfriend wanna-be.  That grazing and associated bedding down out front has been going on for years.  I'm guessing it might take more than an intermittently applied bad smell to overcome that sort of natural history especially just now, in rutting season.

Actually?  According to the map (and yes of course there is one - you mean you don't follow the Rut Report?) our area is currently about half-way through the "pre-rut", and moving towards the "seeking and chasing" stage.  Which is pretty well supported by what I observed this morning.

Hope springs, however.  As soon as I got this post up I went back out with my spray bottle to apply another coat of Deer No More (not the real name) on the area.  So far there is no reason to think the spray doesn't work just as promised when it is used as directed.  Time will tell (and so will I).  Stay tuned....

UPDATE:  I did in fact get out and spray all the plants and the generalized area I wanted protected from deer browse.  For the record, not a single plant suffered further nibbling damage.  Yes, the deer were sticking around, but more importantly, while here they did not seem inclined to treat our landscape as an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

I put another coating on the plants I'd like to keep off limits, and though it is supposed to rain again next week, I'm going to continue using the spray at the recommended intervals and see if we achieve ongoing deterrence.  Frankly, Bambi and his lady friends are welcome to chill out here occasionally as long as they leave the leaves (and flowers and branches) alone!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Barricades

I certainly don't have more errands to run than the next person, but I do try to pile them all up onto one day and then see how efficiently I can tailor my driving to get them all accomplished within the shortest amount of time and using the fewest number of trips.

This is partly spurred on by my natural tendency towards hermeticism but is equally motivated by eco- guilt.   I address my despair surrounding a hopeless dependency upon driving in part with an ongoing effort to hold trips in the car to a minimum.

This particular gambit also appeals because it renders errand running into something a little more like fun.  Challenging myself with working the "highest number of errands with the lowest number of trips" puzzle feels a lot less mind numbing than simply ticking the minutiae off my "to-do" list.

Sometimes the weather cooperates with my efficiency game, yesterday it presented as a bit of an adversary.  The natural factor of errand running is the requisite going in and out of the elements. It all gets complicated by degrees if there is rain in the forecast, ever so much more so when there are predictions for enough rain to flood the usual low water suspects.

Our forecast yesterday included chances for both.  My little subdivision out here West of Austin is occasionally closed off if it rains hard enough to outstrip normal drainage potential.  I'm not afraid to get wet but I had packages to mail I wanted to keep dry and getting stuck on the wrong side of a low water crossing from my house yesterday was not an acceptable option.

Enter the internet.  Before I left to make a sweep through all my "to-dos" it was only prudent that I check radar maps first to see how the cloud cover and approaching storms were shaping up.
While I was paying close attention to the weather, I was admittedly relatively inattentive to the rest of our local news.  BIG mistake.  More on that in a moment.

The radar maps looked pretty clear.  Everything threatening was firing up to the East and moving North.  So far so good.  I piled my packages and double checked my list.  I made sure I had my umbrella and pulled out of the driveway, filled with anticipatory good cheer.

Heading out of my neighborhood, as I was approaching the intersection that accesses the nearest major thoroughfare, a long line of trucks and cars made it obvious traffic was backed up as the result of some monumental snarl.  I sat in traffic through two light cycles, watching as less patient drivers ahead of and behind me U-turned their way out of line.  Eventually I reached a vantage point where I could begin to assess the situation.

To either side I spotted a constellation of emergency lights flashing atop a variety of police, sheriff's department and highway patrol cars blocking not only the main road but also every intersection as far as the eye could see.  In addition to the cars there were motorcycle police scattered everywhere in such great numbers it triggered the creeping realization that something extraordinary had, or worse yet, was still happening.

In the past I've not only read about but have seen with my own eyes terrible accidents on this particular road involving multiple vehicles at several of these same intersections. Traffic is heavy, speeding is common and the road can be dangerous when wet.  I've also seen the road blocked off for lengthy funeral processions involving locally important and well loved community figures.

But I've never personally witnessed anything like the convergence of law enforcement laid out in front of me yesterday afternoon.  It was starkly suggestive of disasters and tragedies on a national scope that I've only ever watched play out on television.

Frankly my imagination went into overdrive.  Early voting was going on in the grocery store I could see but not yet reach by car.  There is both an elementary and a middle school close by.  Was there some sort of bomb threat?  Plane crash?  Gunman with hostages?  I could only begin to guess what would require so many different agencies to be on site redirecting traffic away from such a large area.

Fighting a mounting sense of dread I finally made my way across the road and hurried into my neighborhood Post Office.  Once inside a relaxed and cheerful postal clerk glanced up from her work at the counter and allayed all my fears with one chipper observation.

"Well - there goes the motorcade, I guess Mr.  Biden is heading back downtown!".

No tragedy was playing out at all.  Quite the opposite in fact.  The roads were all barricaded to allow free passage of both the current Vice President, and Law and Order:SVU actress Mariska Hargitay, all headed back towards Austin on the return trip after a visit paid to the locally housed National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Folks waiting alongside me in line at the Post Office, upon hearing who was involved and what was behind the inconvenience interfering with their collective afternoons, shared their disapproval the Veep's travel protocol didn't have him helicopter out the same way he arrived, attributing this "obvious waste of tax dollars" to "what is wrong with our country in the first place".

Flashing back to the worst late autumn afternoon of my life in November of 1963, I attempted to remind my fellow post office patrons, some of whom were too young to recall and others who potentially are not natives, that as Texans we ought never ever begrudge doing whatever it might take to keep another national figure from being struck down while visiting in our midst.

Thinking about this later I questioned if perhaps we must forgive some naivete on the part of residents living so far away from the corridors of authority.  Not everyone is accustomed to the necessary inconvenience that travels in proximity to power.

On the other hand, those of us who were living in Texas in November of 1963 and more specifically those of us who lived here in Austin throughout the following 6 years while presidential motorcades and helicopter convoys routinely traveled back and forth between the Austin municipal airport and the LBJ Ranch?  Well, we are accustomed.  We remember all too well not only what those precautions are like but also the deeply sorrowful circumstances underneath why they became a necessity.

For the record, once the Vice President and his entourage safely exited the area, traffic quickly returned to normal (perhaps minus the usual flaunting of speed limits).

Despite my extra time stuck in traffic I found it encouraging local officials carried forward with the necessary commitment to do whatever was needed to protect the Vice President and our other prestigious visitors.  I was profoundly relieved and grateful that overwhelming law enforcement presence was there merely as a precautionary measure and not in response to some calamity involving loss of life or property.

My errands will wait.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Ordinary Glories - Dependable Performers in a Central Texas Garden

Gardening is truly pleasurable in Texas in October.  The death star relents, rains reappear, cooler temperatures prevail. Garden and gardener alike are encouraged.

Every year in late Autumn I become mindful of certain especially tough beauties in my garden spaces.   Year in and year out they shrug off the ravages of heat and drought, taking advantage of Fall's kinder gentler nature for one last display of exuberant color.  I am a rapt audience.

Predictably enough, many of these knockouts in my gardens are native varieties. A few are adaptable near neighbors, but they all are stellar performers in my microclimates.  A few of them I bought, several of them I grew from hand gathered seed or passalong starts, and at least one of them was a gift, planted by wildlife.

Whatever their source they've each won their spot in my garden and in my admiration.
Marvel of Peru - Mirabilis, exact type unknown

I adore Four o'Clocks.  Many treat them as weeds, "trash plants" because they so often escape cultivation to flourish unattended.  I gathered the seed for the pinks alongside the tarmac in a local church parking lot a decade ago.  I found and collected seeds for a white blooming variety from plants I discovered the next year in an empty lot before it was bulldozed for building.  

These provide season long color in several of my shaded spaces. They produce an enormous tap root that takes them sailing through harsh weather and though they can be devastated by insects, the deer don't bother them.  Knowing they'll bounce back I feel free to cut them back whenever they get straggly or overly tall.  To play it safe I collect seed of each color in the Autumn, so I'll have replacement options as needed.
Ham and Eggs Lantana
I've read criticism that Lantana is over used in our area.  I beg to differ.  Any xeric plant that supports wildlife, blooms nearly year round and produces such a variety of colors on a single specimen will always have a place here.  This particular plant arrived via birds (but works where it is - the birds often have a good eye for planting) so I'm taking a stab at identification based upon the bloom colors.  I don't care what it is called, it is thriving where it is and looking good doing it.  
Tropical Sage
Salvia Coccinea is another freely spreading plant and as it appears on natives lists I feel permission has been granted to both abuse it and let it run amok in my spaces.  I prune it whenever I want, transplant it during all the "wrong" times of year, and trust it will come back from the roots as well as freely reseed should a cold winter actually materialize.  I've read complaints these don't respond well to heat and drought but mine are in shade much of the day and if they get stressed looking I cut them back to the ground and they've come back vigorously year after year.  The pollinators and hummingbirds love these and so do I.
Giant Cosmos dominates the back of the garden beds
This Giant Cosmos is a throwback.  I never would have known what it was without this post from fellow local gardener and artist Bob Pool at Draco where he wrote about getting the seed from a local plant sale vendor.  I'm not sure how it arrived in my beds, I don't believe you can buy seed for it (packets advertising "giant" refer to large blooms) but arrive it has.  Now I recognize the giants when they start out, I allow it to reseed freely and simply remove the plants that crop up in spaces I don't want. 

The "Giant" appears late in spring and grows 5-6 feet tall before setting bloom.  It often needs staking after a heavy Fall rain. Once they do appear the prolific brilliant orange flowers remind me a bit of tall marigolds. As such they have become part of our Dia de los Muertos altar ofrendas. 

Mexican Tarragon
While I have often failed miserably in my attempts to grow tomatoes,  I have had luck growing herbs in my garden.  I thoroughly enjoy having fresh herbs to cut for cooking and while the French Tarragon won't take the Texas heat, its southern cousin, Tagetes lucida loves it.  I use the leaves freely for cooking all year until they are killed by the first freeze.  The blooms are a visual bonus from a plant I've been raiding for dinners for months.  
Chile Tepin
Also called bird's eye peppers, these fiery little chiles grow on a fair sized bush alongside a path where they tolerate being brushed aside without complaint.  They are thought to perhaps be the oldest form of Capsicum annuum.  I just know they'e beautiful and make a great hot vinegar.  I've got a few bird planted volunteers going now and look forward to more.  With their tiny white flowers appearing amongst green and ripened red peppers throughout, they'd make a lovely Christmas wrapping paper pattern don't you think?
Wild Morning Glory aka Purple Bindweed
These wild morning glory vines definitely fall into the pest category (Ipomoea cordatotriloba).  They are essentially Bermuda Grass with blooms, spreading by prolific reseeding and roots that go deep enough to never be dug completely out. We kept them in one small contained area because just look at those flowers!   And all without a drop of supplemental water.  I am a total sucker for a morning glory bloom even if it means I'm digging starts out of our paths and other beds all summer long.  
Grandpa Otts' Morning Glory
These lovelies are heirlooms - the legitimate, acceptable version of the Morning Glory (though not native to our area). After a couple of years the Grandpa Ott vines reliably reseed themselves but I put out fresh seed annually to assure placement. The semi-shade in the area means the vines don't cover with blooms but also assures it stays manageable.  A couple of times a year I gently unwind tendrils from the nearby Mountain Laurel (a partner in purple blooms) and that's it.  
Jewels of Opar
The Jewels of Opar were an impulse buy, prompted by their whimsical name, from the sale table at a garden center that sells mostly natives.  Talinum paniculatum are native to much of the South and Southwest (a close relative to portulaca) and spread freely by the berries carrying seed that appear in tandem with the tiny pink floral precursors.  These multicolored "jewels" originally caught my eye, along with the pop of chartreuse colored leaves at the base.  

I began with one four inch pot and now have multiple large clusters of them, having transplanted seedlings into several beds where they flourish in hours of direct sun, tolerate hours of deep shade, and generally laugh off everything but deer browse and hard freezes.  When we have a hard winter they die off to the ground only to reappear from the roots once the weather warms.  When we have a hard summer (and when is that not the case?) the leaves wilt occasionally but once out of the direct sun they perk right back up and carry on.   
Spineless prickly pear
Passalongs.  In my neighborhood, after pruning, gardeners will leave piles of pads of these native "spineless" cacti curbside with a sign indicating they are free to be taken.  Opuntia ellisiana don't have long needles, but they do have little clusters of irritating tiny spines that are a reminder to keep from getting too careless.  

Prickly pear don't require special treatment - they don't even require planting per se. Simply place them where they are wanted and if left undisturbed long enough they'll root where they meet the earth.  When they get too tall or wide the pads easily snap off to maintain the desired profile.  
Rivina humilis
Last for today, but certainly not least, is the Pidgeonberry plant.  Rivina humilis is not a particularly drought tolerant native, but with a little assistance will establish itself on a shady hillside and provide flowers for pollinators simultaneously with fruit for birds.  This one is competing capably amongst the tropical sage plants.  I cut the sage back severely in late September allowing the pidgeonberry to rise above during its season of glory.  With a supplemental water source I've no doubt it would be appearing en masse, but our recurrent water shortages preclude such pampering.  As such I enjoy the slower spread even more for the hardiness it truly represents.

There you have it.  No elite group at all but rather a more working-class collection of perennial performers in our demanding Central Texas climate. Some are old fashioned, several are held in current disdain, but left to their own devices these are all plants that require little to no assistance to thrive, much less survive.   As I get older I've discovered I must carefully steward my available energies and heat tolerance for work in our garden spaces.  I find I am more and more grateful for these plants that once introduced, will simply take care of themselves.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Before and After (s)

While I was growing up we openly acknowledged my Mom had a pretty substantial magazine habit.  She allowed herself a couple of subscriptions to tide her over, but most of the magazines at our house were the ones she bought herself as a "little extra treat" during her weekly trips to the grocery store.

My mother read her magazines like she read the daily newspaper.  Cover to cover. After her first read through she would go back and work any word puzzles and take any tests proffered.  She never tore them apart - that would have offended her deep respect for the printed word.

Having grown up during the Depression, my Mom was a saver by nature.  There was no paper recycling those days which meant rather than toss out something she'd paid for, she held on to most of her magazines indefinitely.  On the surface of it her rationale for keeping them was quite utilitarian.

Naturally she never knew when something she'd read in a magazine might come in handy.  Some periodicals had recipes she wanted to try, others had decorating ideas she might eventually want to implement.  She wouldn't be able to tell in advance when she'd want to put hands on a particular article, so she needed to keep them all.  Just in case.

Eventually, when the cast offs had drifted to the far back of our overstuffed magazine holder, I would casually, carefully slide a targeted magazine out to take to my room to read in private.  There was no real need for subterfuge - these were all mainstream women's magazines and they were benign as the day is long.  My stealth was a self imposed discipline because that's the kind of quirky kid I was.

Once I got the magazine to my room I'd close my door, hop up on my bed and impatiently page past the vast majority of the articles.  I ignored recipes and household tips alike. What I was after, what completely captured my imagination, was any article featuring a makeover.  More specifically I was searching for "Before and After" shots.

I would pore over the photographs for long stretches, examining them carefully, looking for the discernible differences large and small.  This was decades before Photoshop so aside from lighting, cropping and altering poses, it was much harder to fool the eye with after effects or tricks.  Most of the makeovers - women's haircuts, make-up, redone rooms, pieces of furniture - whatever the subject of the renovation might be - represented more a study in why this was not just different, but better than that.

Fast forward four decades and I'm still a sucker for the "Before and After" format.  One of the few regrets I have in doing my own gardening and landscaping is when I forget and don't get a "before" shot.  There's nothing I like better after my work is done than to critically review whatever changes I made, deciding whether they are merely different, or actually represent an improvement.  (I'm typically fine with either but the distinction still fascinates me.).

Here's a for instance.

Along our hilly curbside hell zone, the border between our mixed plantings and the neighbor's turf lawn spends most of the hottest months as a visual "oh so you think you're some sort of a gardener?" rebuke.  The overgrowth reminds me ten months of the year that so far the score is Bermuda Grass 99 : Gardener 1.  No wonder I typically head the other direction as I leave the driveway.  Going that way is uphill in every sense of the word.

But.  Every year once the temperatures dip into whatever passes for "workable" I dig out the area and remove every bit of Bermuda root I can find.  This limits what I can plant here, because candidates not only have to tolerate the strangling effect of the grass but also the disruptive effects of my digging it all out prior to replanting.

Here is what is looks like most of the year.  "Before", in spades.
I cheated - this is only a "sorta before".  This is actually after I'd pulled a lot of the longest grass runners off the top.
Unfortunate, I know.  I try not to let this area make me feel bad about myself.  But take a second look at how this corner appears "After" my Sisyphean Bermuda removal efforts.

Not everybody's ideal but better, yeah?
Ahhhh.  It's a nice view while it lasts.  
One of the handful of plantings that survives the extreme heat and occasional shut down of the sprinkler system over here is not a native or even a near neighbor, but an adaptive plant I bought one four inch pot of as an experiment many years ago.
These little pointers are Dyckia, a genus of the Bromeliad family.  One of the more ancient forms, these originally hail from South America where they reportedly form mats even at high altitudes.

I'm not aware of the species name.  If the pots at the nursery were marked I failed to make a note.  (I do that all the time thinking I'll remember after I get things in the ground and I so do NOT and always kick myself after.) I think they might be Dyckia choristaminae because they stay very small.  Granted, these dyckia are not particularly showy specimens.  They stay under six inches and don't display variegated color or send out bloom stalks either one.

In fact if you aren't looking for them they really don't catch your eye.  What they do and keep doing to win my respect however, is they stubbornly slowly multiply, no matter their situation.  They repel deer, endure heat, drought, cold, and stiff competition. Additionally and more important for this area, they survive my pulling them out by the roots annually.  Dyckia I salute thee!  Maybe not a native, but Texas tough to be sure.

Now, indulge me a moment for one other Before and After just to prove a little point.  This before and after photo set includes a shout-out not only to my Hub (love you sweetie!) but also to Kat, author of the ever delightful Hill Country Mysteries.  Happiest 17th anniversary to you and Denny, Kat!  He's a lucky guy.

Both Kat and my Hub warned me in no uncertain terms the deer would take my decision to un-pot and transplant a root bound flame leaf sumac from the fenced back into the beds out front as an open invitation to browse.
According to local experts I might as well hang a "Come and Get It" sign on this one.
So, just to demonstrate that I can and do (on occasion) listen to what I'm told?  Ta daaaa.  Fencing.  Of a sort.  It is the best I could manage with materials on hand to if not deer proof the little tree, at least offer the discouraging word.  
Keep it moving, keep it moving.  Nothing to see eat here, Bambi.
Browsing aside, I have significant doubts this sumac will survive the transplantation process, especially if we have a hard winter as predicted.  However, if it survives and gets well established in this spot, then even the occasional chomp back by deer ought not prevent it from being a bit of a show-off in its own right.  The red display this tree could offer every Autumn will be a distracting visual treat to pleasantly distract me while I'm up at that corner pulling Bermuda grass out.  Again.

That's an "After" shot worth waiting for.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Gateway Salad

Kale is certainly having its 15 seconds of fame isn't it?

Kale, aside from being touted as a superfood, is a reliable garden standby in so many zones it seems to be popping up everywhere.  Food blogs, garden blogs, nutrition articles, lists of healthy foods....  It is ubiquitous.

Before it became the most popular kid in the vegetable class, I'd planted kale in stabs we made at a vegetable garden.  Unfortunately we never mustered enough shared enthusiasm for kale to justify the expense of keeping it watered. Nope.  Kale, even in the highly touted chip form, never found more than one fan in the family.
Trust me, there's kale in there somewhere.
Readily available in local grocery stores and farmer's markets, kale for us is simply one of those easy to grow but not so easy to palatably prepare vegetables that is best relegated to the "I'll buy it when I need it" category. When I needed it was just about...never.

The Hub's reaction summed it up nicely when I proposed trying a salad recipe I'd saved.

Me:  (brightly) Hey honey - how'd you like a superfood salad with dinner sometime this week?
The Hub:  (suspiciously) What superfood?
Me:  (mumbling) kale
The Hub:  What??
Me:  Kale!
The Hub:  (Long pause.  Grumbling...) I don't know - so many of the superfoods just don't taste very good.

And there you had it.  Embodying our prevalent attitude towards anything with a purported medicinal or healthy aspect, ("if it is good for me it has to taste bad"),  kale had fallen into the nutritious-not-delicious abyss, taking its place alongside fish oil, eggplant, and the peels of various fruit and vegetables.

Not wanting to admit to the Hub I'd already bought ingredients, I pressed on.

Keeping my tone light, I offered this was an experiment with no potential blowback.  He likes it, great, he hates it, no harm done. I pledged not to take his reaction personally, whatever it was.  I stated in so many words up front, "This is not a hidden relationship test - if you don't like it I will not get mad and/or hold it against you."

(Why should I need to make such a promise?  You figure it out.)

I rushed to further reassure the Hub this particular kale salad specifically was going to taste good due to the inclusion of recently banished-from-our-premises carbohydrates called for in the recipe.  "Just imagine!" I told him, "it has nuts in it and golden raisins and bread crumbs!  Those carbs are going to hit your palate like dessert!".

And so we boldly went.

Side rant here.  It annoys me no end when I run up against recipe comments on a food blog that praise or condemn a recipe when it becomes clear on reading that the commenter didn't actually come anywhere close to following the recipe itself.  "I tried this for dinner last night but didn't have a pork roast so I substituted ground turkey and instead of chicken broth I used almond milk and I don't have a slow cooker so I used my electric skillet and I subbed in bell pepper because I didn't have any garlic on hand and I thought it turned out dry and sort of bland, so I'm only going to give it two stars!"

Honestly, people.  If you don't bother to follow the recipe you can't really comment ON the recipe, now can you?  

So let me say this about that.  This kale salad (what I kept referring to as a "gateway salad" in my head) we ended up with did not precisely replicate the posted recipe though I state with no embarrassment that my substitutions and alterations stuck very closely to the spirit if not the letter of the original.

Instance the first: I could only find finely grated pecorino.  My cheese was not amusingly nubbly like the recipe's author's was but it was pecorino and I submit the flavor was there.  Only the texture was different.

Also?  I did what I always do and substituted roasted Texas pecans in place of the toasted walnuts called for.  This is a salad, not a cake, so a toasted nut is a toasted nut.  I like my salads the way I like my bars and my garden beds - filled with locals when I can get them.  No apologies or excuses there.
The final deviation?  I can't recall ever seeing how many servings the online version of this recipe states might result from following the directions.  I can recall quite clearly that after I chiffonaded up my first bundle of lacinato kale (which weighed in around 6 ounces, or roughly half what the recipe calls for) I could tell I already had gracious plenty kale ribbonets for the two adults who were the subjects of this mad experiment.

I decided then and there that if that meant I had twice as many carbohydratically delightful plumped golden raisins, pan toasted garlicky bread crumbs and chopped roasted pecan bits, then so be it.  Did I use the full amount of finely ground pecorino cheese?  No I did not.  I halved that and tasted.  Half was juuuust right.  Don't want to get carried away with all this doubling stuff, yes?  Certainment.
OK.  After all this folderol and fiddle dee dee you may be wondering how it all came together.  I must say that under these elevatedly dressed  circumstances the salad was quite enthusiastically received.  I would not dare to prepare it with a reduced level of carb goodies for at least three to four more tries, until the very idea of kale ribbons as salad greens ceased to provoke the slightest shudder.  This is to be a gateway salad after all, not a palate trial by super food.
Here's a link to the original recipe for Kale Salad with Pecorino and Walnuts on the ever delightful food blog, Smitten Kitchen.  Perhaps you already like kale and know that about yourself and won't feel the need to bump up the funsies parts as I ended up doing.   Perhaps like some of the rest of us all you need is a little coaxing and in that case, please go read about the salad and see if you aren't at least tempted to give it a try.  I know I feel just that much more virtuous today, now that I've got the first kale salad under my belt.

Are you a kale fan?  If so do you have some other "meh" ingredient that everybody else simply can't get enough of?  I'll confess - aside from the pickled ones - I am apparently the last person in the free world having a hard time warming up to beets.  I know I must be crazy because there are beets on offer in restaurants, delis and in recipes everywhere these days.  And maybe that's just it.  Like this kale salad, perhaps I just need to find the right recipe to educate my taste buds.  Anybody got one of those?  I'm all ears.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Something Borrowed for Something Blue

Once upon a time I managed to successfully transplant a volunteer Prairie flameleaf sumac (Rhus lanceolata) into a lovely blue pot that is one of my most treasured gifts from the Hub.
We moved the sumac here and there over the years, but eventually, as these things happen, it became root bound in the pot and began to suffer for it.  Last year the leaves didn't turn any color other than brown.  This year it began to look positively terminal.

"We'll need to get that sumac out of the pot if it is going to survive" said the Hub.

(He says "we" all the time but we both knew he meant me.)

I went out and gave the sumac a bit of a tug to see how tightly wedged into the pot it was.  It didn't budge.  I reported back in.

The Hub opined "Yeah, I'm pretty sure you won't be able to get that out without breaking the planter to do it."

I'm not sure if he said this purposefully - we've been married over thirty years and the man knows me pretty durned well.  Because he could have fallen on bended knee and begged me not to destroy this symbol of our undying love and that argument would not have gotten me any more dead set on removing the sumac tree without breaking the pot than simply telling me he was pretty sure it couldn't be done

Challenge, accepted!

I'll spare you the excruciating details - the scene of the extrication was startling enough the Hub came hauling into the house to ask me if I had seen....?  Did I know what happened there?

I had.  I did.  The important point to focus on was that I by golly got that sumac OUT of the pot without breaking it and all that remained was to find a spot where I might be able to wrestle an opening out of the rocky ground out front and replant the little treelet where hopefully the roots would get some breathing room and it could return to its former glory.

Naturally we couldn't agree on a spot.  We couldn't even agree which side of the house was best.

I was determined to plant the sumac out front to provide some screening between our front porch where I love to hang with a glass of wine evenings and the view across the way.  My current vista consists of a monoculture zoysia lawn and a construction site.

The Hub felt just as strongly we (again with the "we") should plant the sumac out back.  He's sure the deer will browse it to the ground.  He says he remembers us moving the sumac out back after just such a deer assault years ago.
Look carefully in the center of this shot and there she is - the Little Sumac That Could (or at least Has So Far!).
He may be right.  I just know he left it up to me and I put it in the only spot out front I could dig a hole deep enough to even pretend it might make the transition.  Time will tell (though I'll be the one to blog about it).

But back to my lovely, rescued blue pot.  It was tantalizingly empty.  I spent several days with it sitting out front where I was pretty sure I wanted to position it, trying to decide what to place inside.

A lightbulb went off.  I'd recently re-read an old "how I did it" post from Central Texas garden design star Pam Penick on her Digging blog that outlined how to make a necklace of sorts for a pot.  I didn't have any shards or broken china to employ but I sure enough had a load of leftover glass beads from a different project abandoned years ago.

The directions were easy - you take copper wire, string that with beads, then suspend your hanging pieces with additional wire.  I was done in a couple of hours.  Now I could show the Hub how useful my tendency to save e-ver-y-thing is and put a little pizazz on my gorgeous blue pot at the same time.  Double score!

Borrowing a second idea from Margaret Roach, east coast garden blogger extraordinaire at A Way to Garden, I filled the bottom third of the pot with rolled bubble wrap (I kept it on its side to assure drainage) then filled the rest with soil.  This keeps the pot light weight enough to move easily and saves on precious soil.

I transplanted in a struggling mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea) that wasn't getting enough sunlight at ground level.  I propped the whole shooting match up further on two limestone blocks to catch additional hours of sunlight, and et, voila!  A new lease on life for the blue pot and the blue sage.
I'm chalking this up as a win all the way around.  Whether or not the sumac makes it through the winter, it has already provided us with years of enjoyment.  My beloved blue pot survived the removal, I was finally able to put some lovely glass beads into play and the mealy blue sage will hopefully thrive in it's newly elevated perch with access to more hours of sunlight.

A lot of our work in the garden is all about hard labor spent in hopes of future outcomes.  After a couple of weeks spent pushing back invasive ground covers and pulling out Bermuda grass, the immediate gratification of this little project was just the right antidote.