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, January 29, 2015

A plant too far, or additional subtraction

An alternately entertaining and frustrating aspect of gardening is my relative inability to see in my mind's eye what several year's growth might mean to the overall composition of a bed.  Though I generally have an idea of what I want an area to look like, the steps to take in getting there are often punctuated, if not outright interrupted, by the need for corrective measures.

That's part of the appeal of dish gardens.  They serve as the ideal practice bed in microcosm.  The mistakes I make designing my dish planters are the same ones I make when planting beds.  Only in dish gardens the missteps, if not any easier to see or accept, are at least a lot easier to address.

Case in point?  I have a dish planter that I started out filling with a collection of succulents.  I love me some succulents, but that planter was bor-ing.   We've all seen a thousand of these and even though I like the look, it wasn't what I wanted for this garden in miniature.  
After a few weeks I put in several clumps of Aztec grass thinking the form of the foliage in combination with the variegation would offer a nice contrast. Better!
I popped in dianthus for the emerald green foliage and occasional white lined blooms.  Better yet!
In fact I was pretty well pleased with the whole shebang (and with myself for putting it together) until suddenly...I wasn't.  

Something was off.  At first I thought adding the blooming plants had been a misstep, that I should have stuck with foliar interest alone.  But I was in love with those few blooms floating above the rest of the massed plants.  The flower's color found an echo in one of the succulents and I liked that.

Some other element was holding things back from being visually pleasing only I wasn't quite able to put my trowel on what it was.

Cue a lot of standing and staring.  Occasionally accompanied by muttering and glaring. Eventually it came to me.  The Aztec grass.  It spread and spread, the way liriope always wants to do, encircling the planter, throwing up a sheltering mass of white striped leaves as canopy above and around the succulents. When I looked at that bowl, what I now saw was a distracting jumble of criss-crossing white. At the first available opportunity, the Aztec grass had to go.
I was in no way prepared for the volume of the grass I removed.  I started out leaving two small clumps remaining in the bowl.  I then spent the next 24 hours fretting and second guessing myself, wondering how long it would take those same two clumps to recolonize the planter.  
What I wanted was to stop obsessing about and start enjoying this garden again.  So, first thing today I took the remaining sprigs of Aztec grass out.  I then moved them to join the other newly liberated Aztec sprigs where I'd transplanted them yesterday, filling in the edging for an area that is often in deep shade.
Granted, the bowl looks a bit worse for wear after not one but two sessions of liriope removal.  Towards the end there may have been a certain amount of not-so-gentle yanking involved.  But, with just a little luck and a bit more time, the remaining plants will fill in much more successfully without having to compete with a faster growing grass.

Even slightly tattered, I'm a lot happier with this new clear view of the other plants in play minus the overhanging white stripes.  This planter should stay off the Must-Be-Done list for a long long while.  And after taking out the opuntia, that's twice in one month that a little subtraction has been the best addition to make to my spaces.  It is probably premature to state "lesson, learned!", but I think I'm getting there.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Growing up in Austin during the 1950's, summers were quite a different prospect.  We were required to handle soaring temperatures without the benefit of central air conditioning.  The expense and relative ineffectiveness of sputtering window units meant after the dinner table was cleared but before the dishes were done, our family and most of our neighbors promptly abandoned hot kitchens and stuffy houses, spilling out to gather on one centrally located front lawn.

Teen agers took advantage of otherwise empty houses to use the telephone. Folding chairs aligned, the women of our block drank iced tea out of sweating jewel toned aluminum glasses, gossiped, and supervised while we played and our fathers watered dying lawns.  It was a time of record heat and drought. Everybody watched the skies.

As kids we were only too happy for a last chance to play before baths and bedtimes conspired to put the end to another day.  We would mostly ignore the adults, but occasionally a skinned knee or hurled insult would find me standing next to my mother's lawn chair, picking at some loose strand of plastic webbing while I nursed wounded feelings and soaked in grownup conversation.

I'd occasionally overhear the phrase "Violet Crown" used to describe a lovely purplish haze that would set up around sunset when the atmospheric conditions were just so.  As a child I loved it when the sky blazed colors of any sort, but that rare purple ring seemed especially magical to me.  The idea the sky made a crown for the place where I lived aligned beautifully with my princess-in-a-magical-kingdom world view.

Fast forward mumbledy-some years.  As decades passed, ongoing development and maturing trees combined to interrupt most of Austin's previously unobstructed sunset views.  It had been eons since I'd seen or even thought of a violet crown.  Then last November while tromping the East Austin Studio Tour, I was thrilled when my vantage point at the the last studio complex we visited afforded me a clear view of a classic Austin Violet Crown sunset.

Without my camera I couldn't get a decent shot, so I did my best with my phone.  I quietly pointed the phenomenon out to those standing around me and we appreciatively turned our eyes away from the intentionally created art for just a few moments to stop and share beauty in the sky.  
I'm unable to avoid an especially mangled metaphor to tell you, but as to conditions favorable for violet crowns?  When it rains, it pours.  Even though a much rarer occurrence than happens at sunset, Austin's iconic Violet Crown can also occur in the morning while the sun is still quite low on the horizon.

As happened to my surprise and delight yesterday. Camera at hand this time, I hustled out to capture a shot before the sun traveled high enough for the angle and intensity of the light to rinse the color out of the morning sky.
I realize all towns everywhere are beautiful in their own way, and views much grander than ours are relatively easy to find.  Maybe it represents me clinging to some last vestige of that princess mindset, but there is something so wistful and wonderful about Austin's temporarily violet skies. Something gentle, and extravagantly unnecessary. That ephemeral numinosity promises me there are mysteries yet to be revealed, marvels lingering just beyond a purple horizon.

And that's all the Happily Ever After I need.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Seven Year Itch

Seven years can be a long time in the life of a plant.

Working backwards, six years prior, the opuntia cluster shown in the photo below (to the right of the pink periwinkles), had dutifully grown from a single pad. That pad arrived one year prior, after spotting a pile of "Free - Help Yourself" spineless opuntia at the curbing in a neighbor's yard.  I took a few paddles home and placed each one on the soil where I thought a mature clump of opuntia would eventually provide structure and interest.

In several spots, including alongside our driveway, I had to create growing space on the soil for the pads by clearing away pre-existing ground covers originally planted decades ago by the previous owners.  I wondered, would the cactus take hold quickly enough to compete?  I know now I need not have worried - the opuntia rooted and easily held its ground.
Looking west, six years ago.
Fast forward to late last year, at some point between the departure of Halloween porch pumpkins and the arrival of holiday door wreaths. Gazing out with a critical eye I abruptly realized: the appearance of that opuntia had become jarring.  After the most recent replacement of asian jasmine and vinca major with native perennials of varying sizes and the easing in of additional rocks and gravel to further delineate the open spaces created, the cactus wasn't working.
The thick pads of the opuntia were now too much, too weighty looking, too close to the drive.  A natural curve had developed to follow the sun and drip line under overhanging oak trees, and the opuntia was fighting that curve.  My mind was made up.  It simply had to go.
The same space in a photo taken in early October of 2014
And yet I hesitated.  How easy would it be to remove an established opuntia cluster with its woody base and multiple "stems"?  This variety is designated "spineless" but that is a misnomer.  These cacti sport stealth spines on every pad.  There were other perennial plants growing in close proximity to consider. Would I be able to dig out the opuntia without tearing up everything growing around it?

There was only one way to find out.  Enticed by the prospects of a warm and sunny afternoon, I grabbed my trusty shovel, (dubbed "sprinkler killer" by my Hub after multiple wire cuttings) and headed out to do some experimental heave ho-ing.  To my surprise and delight the opuntia popped right out of the shallow soil, leaving only the slightest of indentations.

The cacti cluster had one several foot long root growing horizontally back through the ground covers that required a little extra teasing out.  As is frighteningly typical, after pulling out that root, the surface of the jasmine closed seamlessly back over the opening created, rendering it invisible. Asian jasmine is scary stuff, folks.  But that's a story for another day. Overall the opuntia removal was painless. For the gardener, at least.
The same area, January 2015.  I took out the opuntia.  Freezing weather took care of the rest.
Without the visual interruption of that chunky opuntia, the negative space recently enlarged along the driveway's edge works much better as both a contrast to and a lead in towards the multi-layered xeric plantings growing just beyond. I'll pull out more of the jasmine later (as I do every year), and as temperatures warm this spring, I'm hopeful native wildflower seed previously scattered will germinate, flourish, and bloom, attracting appreciative glances and pollinators both.

I work hard to support the plants growing here and even with species that are easily propagated I do not take the removal of an established native lightly. That said, at times the best addition made to a garden space can actually be a subtraction.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

January 2015 - Wildlife Wednesday

The first in a series always garners a little extra pressure to captivate, entertain and inform, and even though this is not my first Wildlife Wednesday post ever, it is the kickoff for an entirely new calendar year, so I have been feeling a bit panicked.

You see, with some fairly chilly overnight temperatures in play recently it looked like all I'd be writing about was a No-Wildlife Wednesday.  Over and over I bundled up and went out roaming with my camera.  It was just me and the plants, one of us grumpily thinking that it being too hot outside maybe wasn't really so awful.  Because with the exception of a few pretty tiny gauzy flying thingies caught in the sunlight one afternoon, it felt pretty much like I was the only thing moving around outside.
Which is, of course, utter nonsense.  You are never, ever alone in a garden. Easily visible to the casual observer or not, the garden beds, landscaped areas, heck, even the potted plants and the lawn are absolutely teeming with life all year around.
Some of that life, of the stomping chomping pooping variety, is agreeably harder to overlook than the little bitties.
But this time of year?  Large or small, life in the wild is playing out under protective cover and while that makes it all that much harder to capture the action on camera, it is impossible to deny.
In every nook and cranny, every day, hot or cold or wet or dry, something with a mouth makes gardening a little more challenging, a little less predictable.
And complain as I will, learning about those very same mouthy critters keeps the practice of gardening, at least for me, not only a lot more interesting, but a lot more fun.
I am so regularly astonished and delighted by what I discover.
For example, recently while doing a little sleuthing to finally put the name to a succulent I've grown for years without knowing what it was called, I ran across a statement about the plant growing in its native setting that stopped me in my tracks.
The succulent, which I have growing in multiple settings, is called Portulacaria afra.  There are several varieties with different sizes, leaf and stem colors. They all tumble delightfully over edges and feature lovely little round leaves that contrast beautifully with the rosettes and spikes of other succulents.

Portulacaria afra serves as the ideal "spiller" component in any thriller/filler/spiller combination for dish gardening.  It is easy to propagate (in fact try and stop it) as any branch that breaks off will rapidly develop an independent root system.  I just love the stuff.
The particular variety I found is low growing, Portulacaria afra prostrata, and while that is fun to speak aloud, sounding quite a bit like a sorcerer's spell, it was the so-called common name for this little garden workhorse that really grabbed me.  In South Africa where the plant originates, Portulacaria afra in all its growth forms is simply called "Elephant Food".

Ponder that for a moment.  As much as we Central Texan gardeners gritch and moan about the ongoing assaults various bugs, raccoons and even white tail deer mount on the plants growing in our unfenced spaces, the idea that a plant would be acknowledged by its very name to face destiny as elephant food? Well, that was sobering.
I tried to imagine the rigors of gardening in the company of not just any hungry herbivore, but one that must eat enough to support a body the size of a minivan.  All at once, my perspective shifted.  I realized I am grateful, deeply grateful, to "only" have deer at the top of our local munching chain.  

That's my post for Wildlife Wednesday this January.  To avoid any confusion, the photos above are all my own, but were taken in months when the temperatures outside were well above our current January chill.

Thanks as always to Tina at My Gardner Says for hosting, and to you for stopping by.  I hope you'll join the fun this month and link your post to hers on her site in the Wildlife Wednesday comments section.

And while I'm at it - Happy 2015 to us all - large, small and in-between!    


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Resolved....a Declaration of Determined Dormancy

I was sitting there, snug in my well heated home, grateful the overnight forecast had changed to reflect slightly warmer temperatures for our area last evening.  I was dreading hauling in and covering plants to protect them from freezing temperatures and since it wasn't going to freeze, I wasn't going to bother.  Actually, not bothering is getting to be a theme of sorts around here.

Honestly, I've gone just about as dormant as most of our garden plants, to the point of rigorously ignoring multiple opportunities to get maintenance or other outdoor winter work accomplished.

Obsessing (but only through the windows) about how the bluebonnet rosettes are handling winter weather so far is about as much energy as I've spared in December for the very same spaces I worked in multiple times daily other months of the year.
Bluebonnet rosettes holding up well so far...
That is just the way I roll, folks.  I go from one extreme to the other.  I am either thinking about the plants and beds and working in them nonstop, or alternately I go about my indoor business, living as if I had staff, as if those outdoor spaces were somebody else's responsibility entirely.

Should I say all that will that change in 2015?  Can I come to you with assertions I will do better, I will behave differently, I will take full advantage of winter's chilling effects and personally get around to addressing the laundry list of chores that routinely accumulates during the growing season?
These succulents are displaying the characteristic color of the cold bitten.  My apologies for leaving them uncovered during the last freeze of 2014 had no visible effect.
Nah.  We've been at this too long not to be honest with each other.

Nope. I am resolved, as I face another New Year's Day, to reconcile myself to myself.  Going forward I will freely admit my own nature.  As a native in my own microclimate I acknowledge I will go dormant in December, drop the pretense of garden control, and remain horticulturally insensate not only through January, but potentially well into February.
When I enlarged this photo I was a little shocked to spot aphids on the stem below and to the left of the seed head on this Tropical Milkweed plant.  I never thought of aphids as cold hardy.  
If you are and have been out regularly working your own spaces, planning ahead and getting prep work done for the growing season to come, then I offer you my deepest admiration and most earnest accolades.  I am currently and will remain cocooned inside, keeping the loosest eye out for freeze warnings but otherwise letting the garden have its head.  I am counting on reappearing from the roots, bouncing back vigorous and fresh right along with my garden as the weather warms.  It has certainly happened that way every year so far.

Wait, you may well wonder, does this declaration of dormancy mean I will have nothing at all to say here for weeks to come?
A little home crafted dino succulent planter bling.  This was a favorite out of the various gifts we made this year.
I wouldn't bet on it.

Happy 2015 to one and all!  As this new year unfolds, here's an early wish: may we all experience growth and grace in equal measure.