Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My carrion hound

Iris is shy, and normally does not care to have her picture taken.
I’ve mentioned before that we have a wonderful dog. Her name is Iris – named by my daughter for the iris-shaped white mark on her chest. She is beautiful to look at, sweet-tempered, very loyal and loving (she gives hugs with her legs!), not too large or too small. She rarely barks, except when she spots a pesky squirrel during the day or a terrifying hog in the night. She doesn’t kill chickens. She doesn’t roam.  She runs astonishingly fast, which could conceivably be an issue, except that she is very obedient. People stop cars to issue compliments when my husband takes her for walks. I could go on.

But no dog is perfect. Our Iris has one very large and glaring flaw:  She adores rotting carcasses, the more fragrant the better. Most of the year this is a manageable problem. Frequently animal bones appear on the porch. Occasionally a chicken is killed by marauding bands of slobbering, wild, red-eyed . . . well, neighbor dogs. Iris won’t kill a live chicken, but she does enjoy gnawing on a tasty dead one. Yum.

At this time of year, however, the issue looms large. My husband hunts deer on our property; when he’s successful (two white-tailed bucks so far this year), he cleans them and then discards the carcasses here. It does not matter how far away or how high in a tree he chucks these savory remains; Iris will find them and drag them back to the house.

There they languish - sometimes actually on the porch, or perhaps decorating the front yard. Frequently, they are left beside a path, for maximum olfactory and visual enjoyment of human passersby. We recently hosted a large party, and my 18-year-old son insisted that these piles of disgusting carrion be removed before guests arrived. Removed by someone else.

Herein lies the next problem. Ugghhh! No one wants to touch these nasty treasures, so they lurk around our yard and porch for an obscene length of time. I will sometimes take the initiative and kick things off the porch, where they are likely to land in my flowerbeds. Is that better?  Yes, I’ve decided. They are out of my immediate line of sight, and surely they provide some sort of organic fertilizer. That is, until Iris retrieves them.

Favorite spot in the garden today:

Bachelor’s buttons (Gomphrena globosa)! I had one big plant this year.  They are so lovely, tough and long lasting, that I plan on harvesting the bloom heads soon so I can sow seeds next spring and have a more bountiful crop.  I’ve just read that these are native to Central America, and are also grown in British gardens. What a versatile little plant!

My mother-in-law (known as Mother Nature in some parts) dries these and places them in small vases for cheerful winter color. Maybe one day I’ll plan that far ahead.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Above:  Flame-leaf sumac
Below:  Yaupon holly

Yes, we do have fall in Texas! You might have to look closely to find it, but it is definitely there.

A few weeks ago I decided to capture some photos of fall-tinted vegetation - only nature would not cooperate. Multiple times I looked out the window and saw the sun shining brightly, grabbed the camera and hustled out to a vantage point I had in mind, only to have clouds obscure the light I was seeking. After about the eighth time, I felt like one of Pavlov’s dogs, so I quit.

However, I shall not let a small detail like THE SUN deter me. Fall has progressed since then; red oak has moved to the fore color-wise as flame-leaf sumacs have dropped many of their colorful leaves. Cedar elms’ small yellow leaves brighten the understory down the street. We have a few yaupons (Ilex vomitoria) with bright red berries, and the Ashe juniper trees are sporting blue berries now. The copper canyon daisy continues to bloom, although the lantanas have succumbed to a light freeze. (Is black considered a fall color? Hmm.)

Little bluestem and Ashe juniper
along the road in my neighborhood.
Little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) provides the most visible fall color in my neck of the woods. In the fall it shoots up many rust-hued seed stalks. With backlight, fuzzy white seeds glow up and down the stalk. This grass is beautiful over winter, when covered with a layer of frost. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website, the stem bases have a bluish color in the spring, hence the name.

I have some guilty fall pleasures, too. Pyracantha, invasive here, is striking along the roadsides at this time of year. And then there is King Ranch bluestem – beautiful as it ripples in a breeze in a field or roadside, but very bad stuff as it crowds out native species. (My father-in-law may disown me for that last sentence.)

Favorite spot in the garden today:

My favorite today is another grass – Lindheimer’s muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri). I planted clumps on either side of my front doorstep. One has not thrived, but the other (on the less hospitable side) has, and has multiplied. The clumps have 5-foot golden seed stalks, which sway gracefully in the wind. Lady Bird's site says this plant is native only to the Edwards Plateau of central Texas. Hey, that's me!

This area is looking rather messy, but I’m enjoying this grass and it seems happy, so I think I will leave the volunteers and clean out something else, instead.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Beetle Parade

Driving home from the grocery store yesterday, I noticed some small black shapes crossing the highway. They weren't hopping like crickets, but moving at a slow and steady pace. From this I deduced that they were beetles. Some were heading right to left, some left to right.

They were busily trundling across the highway, obviously on a mission. Were they looking for love (in all the wrong places)? Food? A new home? I tried to look up these beetles on line later. Did you know that Texas A&M lists 82 different kinds of beetles in Texas? Trying to identify a beetle by typing "moving in November" doesn't work. Perhaps they were a type of ground beetle. They were on the ground, after all.

I had a choice before me that morning: drive blithely on ignoring the crunch of carapaces under my wheels, or attempt to avoid as many of the little creatures as possible. I consider myself a good person, a protector of life, a respecter of all species (except maybe fire ants), so I opted for dodging.

Caveat:  This was not a full-speed highway. I was on Kohlers Crossing between Kyle and Buda, where the speed limit is 40 or 45. Luckily, there was not much traffic. I proceeded down the road making careful course corrections so as not to flatten the busy beetles. Occasionally, I couldn't dodge in time, and I cringed at the imagined "crunch."

I saved many beetles yesterday. Well, at least my car was not the instrument of their deaths. I hope they made it safely to their destinations. (Taking food home to beetle children? Shopping at the HEB trash bins?)

It's a good thing a policeman wasn't following me. He would have undoubtedly pulled me over on suspicion of intoxication. I'm not sure he would have appreciated the explanation for my weaving: "Officer, I was respecting the sanctity of beetle life."

Favorite spot in the garden today:

Choosing a favorite spot has much to do with the vantage point. This is the view from my office window, and it is so cheerful, that I must pick it today!

You are looking at Copper Canyon Daisy (Tagetes lemmonii), which blooms in late October into November. Occasionally it freezes before it can bloom. Some years it is even more eye-catching than this, but I pruned too late (I can see my mother-in-law shaking her head at me). This happy plant will continue blooming, drawing scads of butterflies and moths, until the first freeze. It is one of my favorites; it requires little to no water, has a strong scent (discouraging deer depredations), and looks absolutely stunning in a good year. So stunning, in fact, that it is worth having even if it doesn't bloom every year.

According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website, this is a desert plant native to Arizona, Mexico and Central America. It works great for the hardscrabble soil here!

Oh, and according to A Field Guide to Texas Insects, the beetle on the daisy is a spotted cucumber beetle. It has an incredible species name for such a little bug, so I'll share it just for fun:  Diabrotica undecimpunctata howardi Barber.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Several weeks ago, I spied a perfect natural tableau in my neighborhood, occurring without the help of a human gardener.

As I walked with my beautiful dog, Iris, this scene caught my eye, and on my return I stopped to lean on my neighbor’s white board fence to examine it more closely. Sure enough, there it was. It was perfect.

I did not have a camera with me, so I had to observe with my own eye instead of the mechanical one. Here goes!

Just inside the fence, with the midday sun illuminating all its details, was a large, flat limestone slab, dark, with some rubble scattered across the top. It was probably 4 foot by 2 foot in size. Behind it was a gnarled old prickly pear - no blooms, no colorful tunas, just a weathered cactus. Surrounding the slab and the cactus were zexmenia shrubs (Zexmenia hispida). As a result of our ample rains and moderate temperatures, this native is blooming all over my neighborhood.  The combination of light green/dead cactus pads, dark gray rock, and the dark green foliage and cheerful orange blooms of the zexmenia was just lovely.

Lovely groupings like these seem to occur most often by accident of nature. No matter how I try, I cannot pull off such scenes as successfully as Mother Nature does.  But I do keep trying!

Favorite spot in the garden today:

Okay, I did plant this grouping, and it has turned out even better than I hoped! By the stone walkway to the parking area, my husband and father made a bed that circles the bases of a cedar and an oak growing cheek by jowl. With the aforementioned good weather and rain, this bed is lovely right now. It is filled with white cherry sage (Salvia greggii), blue mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum), and dark blue/purple Salvia ‘indigo spires.’ Queen butterflies (and an occasional monarch) adore the mistflower. As we walk to and from our cars, we disturb them. On a quiet day, we can hear their wings flapping as they flutter around us.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Memorial for Carolyn

Carolyn Owen Thomas died of leukemia September 5.

I met Carolyn about 12 years ago when we both served on the board of directors for the Village Library of Wimberley. At a library fundraiser, we commiserated on how uncomfortable we felt at social gatherings, and we agreed that small talk was not our forte. We could avoid socializing by finding chores to do, so we busied ourselves gathering used glasses and crumpled napkins.

We both loved books and nature.  She was a military spouse, who had worked as a librarian in several schools in Hays County. She was also part of the local quilting group.

Our lives intersected again when my husband and I bought property next door to Carolyn and her husband Marshall. They were happy to have our family as neighbors, and we were thrilled to live next to such wonderful, caring people.

My daughter and I subsequently went to tea at Carolyn’s house. We admired the rock wall that lined the long driveway, rocks gathered and placed by Marshall. The Thomases had trimmed up the many cedar trees, so the land had a woodsy feel, but was not an impenetrable thicket.

Their house was lovely, with rock sidewalks and native plants decorating the entry. On other side of the house, we sat on the patio overlooking a magnificent field of little bluestem. We toured her husband’s raised bed vegetable garden, bursting with veggie plants and flowers. Outside the gate was a Mexican buckeye, which I had never seen in this area. It was gorgeous!

Sadly for us, about six months after we moved in, the Thomases decided it was time to sell their place and move to Austin, to be closer to family. It was a hard decision for them to make, and we were crushed. Their lives were full, as were ours, and we did not keep in touch after they moved.  

My friend Lona and I attended Carolyn’s service last week. It was held, fittingly enough, at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which was very near her Austin home. At the “celebration of her life,” we learned more about her. She was a great mother and cherished spouse, a doting grandmother, a fun-loving friend and sister, a resourceful homemaker. She was indeed a lovely person, and left behind a wonderful family to cherish her memory.

I won’t forget her, either.

 Favorite spot in the garden today:

We have a beautiful patch of morning glory this year covering an eastern porch post. These are beautiful head on, of course, but from inside the house we see them backlit by sunlight. Not only is there a peaceful greenish cast to my living room, but the blue flowers just glow. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010


With all the rain we've had, the mushrooms are back and beautiful! Miss H. went mushroom hunting yesterday, and this morning we went out to take pictures of some of her finds (and one of mine). We know absolutely nothing about them, but find them fascinating nonetheless. The fact that they lay dormant until the conditions are perfect is amazing; the conditions are not perfect here in Hays County very often!

Do you see him? Miss H.'s sharp eyes did!

This is not a mushroom, but we thought it was pretty!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A beautiful volunteer

I’m sitting on my porch, loving the new laptop.  What better place to write about gardening? A cool breeze is blowing, rain clouds are overhead, and occasional sprinkles spatter on the tin roof.

A volunteer American beautyberry is now living in the natural area in front of my house. I found it this summer, drooping in the August heat. I thought it looked like beautyberry, but being a lazy botanist, I did not take the time to look it up and identify it for sure. I like the uncertainty, the mystery. I did take the time to water it a few times, hoping it would survive.

With the drenching rain we received the first week of September, the berries immediately turned that beautiful magenta color that I have been envisioning in my garden for a long time. I was right!  I didn’t want the beautyberry badly enough to actually plant it, I guess. But I’m so happy that a bird planted and fertilized it for me!

Perhaps it is not in the perfect location for its temperament. It is partially shaded by mountain junipers, live oaks, and flame-leaf sumacs, but gets quite a lot of mid-day sun. It is far from a water spigot. However, as I, and many a gardener before me, have discovered, plants that volunteer seem to volunteer in spots where they can be successful. And now that it is established, perhaps the seeds will be transported to other, more perfect, locations on my property.

Favorite spot in the garden today:

Under the cedar trees by the rock patio, the white and red tropical sages have naturalized. Because of the aforementioned rain, they are blooming profusely. In the midst are a couple of century plants that were plopped there five years ago, pending permanent planting out by the front gate. Thank goodness they have not actually taken hold and grown, but have merely existed.  (I know what you’re thinking:  get those things out of there – and you’re right!) Nature has created, as it does, a lovely little garden spot.