Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Oh what a beautiful morning . . . "

Last night, we fell asleep to the sound of a lovely rain, monotonously drumming on the tin roof. 

Look closely - see steam curling off the left trunk?

When we awoke, the rainy weather had moved on, leaving 1.4" of water in the gauge and a lovely morning.  It was that sort of morning when colors are vivid, water drops are sparkling everywhere, and the air smells clean.

As I looked out the window (the beauty distracted me from my book and coffee!), I noticed steam curling off the trunk of a tree. That did it. I grabbed the camera and headed out in my robe, slippers and curlers. (I didn't really have curlers in, but it makes a great visual, doesn't it?)

Here's how it looked on the hill this morning. Enjoy!

Seedlings by the

This fellow stopped by
while I was out taking photos.

Beautiful green yarrow, . . . 

. . . wet shiny stones . . . 

 . . . and rusty hues of prairie flame-leaf sumac.
The full effect - fall color central Texas style!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"All I want for Christmas . . . "

The lobbying began before Thanksgiving, complete with song: 

            “All I want for Christmas is a real Christmas tree,
            A real Christmas tree, oh, a real Christmas tree.”

I think you know the tune.

The mighty woodsman chopping down
our Christmas tree.
Several years ago we had a lean Christmas, and decided that instead of spending scarce funds on a store-bought tree, we would cut a tree from our land.

Mind you, Christmas trees in the traditional sense do not grow on our land. We have Ashe junipers. Because they tend to grow in thickets, they are shaped by their quest for the sun: thinly branched and leaved, usually lopsided, with very long lower branches. When brought into the house, some might consider them . . . ugly.

In my eye, once one is hung with ornaments (some handmade, some sentimental favorites), strung with small white and multi-colored lights, swaddled in the tree skirt I crocheted early in our marriage, and topped with the angel Dan and I bought our first Christmas, it becomes beautiful. It is a cheerful symbol of the love in our family.

Once we broke that tradition of visiting the Christmas tree lot, wandering among the lovely evergreens, then dropping $75 on a tree that would die within a month, it was hard to go back. In prior posts, we have established that I am a cheapskate.

More importantly, it feels more Christmas-like to walk out the door and wander our land in search of the perfect – well, somewhat perfect – tree, cut it down, drag it to the house, wedge it into the tree stand, and decorate it. It looks like the appropriate tree for our house. It feels homey. It feels right.

My daughter yearns to hang ornaments on those thick evergreen branches once more. To her, our spindly cedar trees aren’t green enough, thick enough, or lush enough to qualify as perfect Christmas trees. As I write this, I feel a twinge of sympathy for her and her vision of Christmas. Maybe next year we will give in and go find that perfect tree at a lot. 

But when she’s grown with her own family, I hope she will fondly remember those years when we put on coats, grabbed the chainsaw and headed for the woods to choose a Christmas tree. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Life on the frontier

Thursday, I was a pioneer woman.

Or at least as close to one as I’ll ever be.

First, I arose before daylight to get my daughter off to school. I usually poke up the fire in the woodstove at this point, but with pleasant weather we haven’t needed the heat. I prepared a nutritious breakfast (frozen waffle) and filled her lunch pail (a purple plaid insulated bag). We saddled up our ride (SUV) and rode off to school, eight miles away.

When I returned to the homestead, the chickens needed tending. Usually this is the husband’s job, but he was not available this day. I fed and watered them, then discovered a dead chicken in the coop. After examining it for cause of death – undetermined – I tossed it out in the woods. Returning to the coop, I gathered four brown and green eggs, and trudged back up the hill to the house.

Death is part of life here on the frontier. This chicken was one of our meat birds, however, so I was unhappy about losing the investment.

Next, I consulted with the well digger (more on that in a later post).

Time to bake bread! Can you see me, leaning over a floured board with sleeves rolled up, wearing a white apron, hair in a messy bun, sweat beading my brow as I vigorously knead dough? Oh wait, that wasn’t me. I made pumpkin bread – no kneading required.

My bones and rheumatism told me that rain followed by cold were imminent (those and the local weatherman), so I tied my bootlaces, left the bread baking and ventured forth to gather firewood. We don’t own a mule or horse, despite living in Texas. I really, really wish I could fashion a harness for Iris the dog to help drag loads. Short of these options, I was reduced to using the wheelbarrow. I did not have to cut or split the firewood (though I have wielded an ax before – scary, I know), just trundle my barrow out to the piles located here and there, load up, then return and stack logs on the wood rack.

At one point, logs and brush piles sited to slow water run-off distracted me. I moved a few logs around . . .

. . . only to arrive back at the house and find I had come perilously close to burning the bread.  I rescued it in the nick of time. Just a little burn smell tinged the pumpkin bread fragrance. It dissipated quickly. No one will notice.

Lunchtime. And naptime. And a Facebook check. What? Pioneer women didn’t have Facebook? Lord, they were deprived.

Next, I needed to plant vegetable seeds in the garden before the aforementioned rain fell.  I gathered my gloves and seed packets, collected one of my buckets of worm dirt, and followed the path to the vegetable garden. Usually this is my husband’s domain, also.  This day, Pioneer Woman was in charge.

I turned the soil, pulling out weeds and mixing in dried chicken poop and worm dirt. I carefully placed seeds for mixed lettuce greens, spinach, turnips and Swiss chard. I offered a benediction over the garden, something like this:  “Please grow. Rain’s coming. Good luck.”

In the middle of planting, I saddled the SUV again, retrieved my daughter from school and fed her a picnic supper, and delivered her to an evening commitment.

Final chore of the day was to prepare a home-cooked meal for my hard-working husband who had been out laboring in the fields all day. Or maybe he was riding on an airplane, returning from a business trip. On the menu:  turkey tenderloin topped with pecans, sautéed spinach and salad. Welcome home, honey!

My day of pioneering was fun. When I imagine doing all that and much, much more in a long skirt and bonnet, with no electric appliances, grocery stores, neighbors, gas-powered transportation or indoor bathrooms – jumpin’ Jehosaphat. I’m happy to be a pioneer woman on my own terms, assisted by modern conveniences.

Favorite spot in the garden:

A prior resident planted this Moses’ boat (Tradescantia spathacea, I think!) in small beds under trees, and they are flourishing with no attention from me. They have been doing well with our recent rains, but their days are numbered as surely a freeze is near.

Other names for this beauty are Moses-in-a-boat, Moses-in-a-basket, boatlily or oyster plant. According to Dave's Garden,  it is invasive in Florida, and contact with leaves can cause an allergic reaction.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fall blooms on the hill

The woolly butterflybush (Buddleja 
marrubiifolia) is a Texas native, according to the 
Wildflower Research Center. This cool plant 
survived the summer in my hottest bed 
without supplemental water. It grows 3 to 
6 feet tall (mine is about 3) and 
attracts butterflies, as its name implies.
As per usual, I am posting for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, hosted by May Dreams Gardens one day late. In my defense, it was raining yesterday. While we were thrilled by the 1 inch we received, my camera was not and took the day off. That inch of rain brings us to 15.1 inches for the year (our average is about 33 inches). It's astonishing anything is blooming at all. But voila!

We are having a beautiful fall in central Texas. The temperatures have been mostly in the upper 70s during the day, 50s and 60s at night, with a few quick cool spells. This moderate weather is probably drought related, but I'll take it. Monday evening, I was out in shorts and t-shirt. I'm so happy to live in Texas right now! (I might not have been so happy at the end of this past summer.)

Also, we have not had a freeze yet here on the hill, though some of our neighbors have. Our lowest temp so far has been 37 F.

Here's another Texas native perennial strutting its stuff. The white mistflower
(Ageratina havanensis) is a butterfly magnet, though it hasn't drawn many this year.
However, the bees were ecstatic this morning! Again, from the Wildflower Center,
this is a Texas native, found on the Edwards Plateau south to Mexico,
blooming in October and November. 

Above: Moses' boat, bedraggled,
but hanging in there!
Left:  Tropical sage (Salvia coccinea)
is a southern U.S. native. It suffers in
drought here, but perks up nicely with rain.

Fleabane! This stuff volunteers - I love it!

Still blooming - new gold lantana  . . .
These blackfoot daisies (Melampodium leucanthum) reappeared after our fall rains.
Last, but not least, flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii)
is still blooming and nourishing lots of bees. I tried to get a picture of a bee dining,
but the darn things would not pose.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Let’s talk about brush.

This Northern cardinal is enjoying his vantage point. 
I frequently see birds flying from our bird bath to this pile.
Brush piles provide cover for wild creatures. When we filled out the application for Backyard Habitat designation, brush piles counted in our favor. As our backyard is larger than the average Jane's, much of it crowded with Ashe juniper thickets, brush piles are easy to come by. In fact, much of the property might be considered a standing brush pile.

I was excited to realize that brush piles are beneficial. They aren't unsightly, but serve as homes to birds, snakes, rabbits, mice, etc. This was a tectonic shift for a girl who grew up in towns where brush piles were signs of a lazy homeowner. It’s all in the perspective, isn’t it?

Boy, do we have brush piles. Everywhere. We have burned lots of brush in our seven years on the hill. But frequently the county issues burn bans due to dry conditions, and the brush starts accumulating in . . . well, piles.

Forgive the photo quality; this was taken on my cell phone.
Last year favorable conditions allowed us to tackle the biggest, baddest brush pile ever – 10 feet wide by 30 feet long. Trees surrounded the monster pile, and our water hoses could not reach. It had been lurking there at the front of our property for a good long while, and had dried to a crisp.  First we cut back surrounding trees and piled that brush nearby. We set the thing alight, not knowing how fast it would burn, and hoping an inopportune gust of wind would not strike. Terrifying.

It burned large, but under control (barely). After the main pile burned, we threw on the newly-cut brush. It was an all-day burn extravaganza. I kept expecting fire department trucks to come wheeling in, sirens wailing, either after calls from nervous neighbors or after a panicked call from us.

We resolved NEVER to pile brush like that again. From now on, we would collect brush in small piles and, if needed, drag branches to a central location a little at a time for burning or chipping.

When I go out to clear small areas, I look for a hidden spot, preferably on a drainage of some sort, to pile brush. I address another issue with this strategy – slowing down the flow of run-off in the next flood event (that’s how we roll here – drought followed by flood). These piles can stay.

Recently we have been creating new brush piles. After watching wildfires scorch Texas this year, we decided to push the brush line away from our house (see Snow White and me). We plan to rent a chipper and make mulch. Meanwhile, the piles shelter birds and other critters. All is good in Pickens Land.

At least that’s what I thought until yesterday, when I read in the newspaper that Travis County officials are formulating new fire control plans, one of which is to minimize brush piles. Wait – brush piles are good, right?  Well, in the case of a wildfire, brush piles are bad. I imagine a burning brush pile would deliver fire up into the canopy very efficiently indeed. Bad.

In the interests of protecting our house, I have exchanged one danger for another. Oh brush, I’m so confused! What should I do?

Everything in moderation, as they say. Brush piles are good, when small and not located close to your house (in retrospect, this seems rather obvious).  As I look out the window at trees gesticulating wildly in the gusty north wind, I’m thinking I should rent that chipper pretty soon.

Sorry little critters. You’ll need to move along to smaller digs before too long.

Favorite spot in the garden:

Black dalea (Dalea frutescens) is native to Texas, Okahoma, New Mexico and northern Mexico, and likes to live on limestone hills. I've not found it in the wild on my property, but it seems to like my flowerbed alright.  This small shrub (mine is about a foot tall) has fern-like foliage and lovely blooms (July to October). I pick this lovely lady for today's favorite!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Purple sage memories

Enlarge this if you can to see the tiny hairs
covering the leaves and flower petals.
Every gardener knows that gardening is a way of preserving memories. Each of us has memories associating certain plants with beloved people and places. Gardeners preserve those memories with their plant choices.

I was reminded of a memory last week when my cenizo or purple sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) burst into bloom two weeks after recent rain.

When I entered first grade, we lived in Kermit, Texas, truly one of the state’s armpits. As I recall, it was hot, dry and dusty. Periodically dust storms would attack. Its only reason for being, as far as I could tell, was to provide my father with employment in the oil “bidness.” (We left this town after my fourth grade year, so it may not be as bad as my fourth-grade self remembers.)

But one good memory remains. I started school at Purple Sage Elementary there. I turned 7 the week after first grade began (I skipped kindergarten). I was ready to learn. Even though school has its social challenges for nerds like me, the educational challenges were mostly enjoyable. I liked school; I was good at it.

In my mind’s eye I can see a row of purple sages planted across the front of that school, brightened with lavender blooms after a rare West Texas rain.  Perhaps I associate purple sages with the advent of a new phase in my life – away from home, mother and sisters; out in the big world; in an arena in which I would be successful. I have had a soft spot for these shrubs ever since.

When we moved to the hill, my father drove up soon after wagging a cenizo dug out of his yard in North Texas, where conditions weren’t quite right. I was not ready to landscape yet, so it sat in a pot for over a year.

I finally found a spot out front in a xeric bed, semi-shaded by live oaks, tucked behind an already established yucca.  In it went, and on it has dwelled since. In this summer’s drought, its bones were showing. However, it survived the summer without supplemental water and is now blooming beautifully.

Cenizo is a southwest Texas native according to the Wildflower Research Center. It needs good drainage, likes limestone, is evergreen, blooms after rain (giving rise to another of its names – Texas barometer bush), provides nectar for butterflies and insects, survives drought and heat, and does not appeal to deer.

I have not seen any cenizos in the wild in my area, but it seems quite happy here. I’d better plant more!

Favorite spot in the garden:

I actually have three favorite places right now, but that’s not fair. I have to choose.  So I choose – this patch of new gold lantana (Lantana x hybrida ‘New Gold’). By happenstance, these three plants were put in exactly the right spot five years ago, and they have done exceedingly well. This year they have not bloomed much, but with the recent rain they have made up for lost time. Unfortunately, we may get a freeze overnight, so their glory may be short-lived. Long live the lantanas!

Friday, October 28, 2011

An autumn walk

Earlier this week my daughter (home sick from school - but not too sick!) and I set off to explore a dirt road that runs along our property, as part of This Grandmother's Garden's Autumn Walk Challenge. I've been wanting to traipse this road, and now I have a good excuse. 

Technically, we are trespassing, which makes my daughter very nervous. The road is an easement  to which we do not have access. But it washed out from flooding a year ago, and we very rarely see a vehicle navigating it. I'm sure the owners would not notice or mind two intrepid explorers.

We crawl through our rickety bobwire fence to embark on our expedition. My daughter immediately spies these copper-colored rocks amid the usual limestone. The nice thing about walking with a child is that she has sharp eyes for things on the ground . . . 
We head down the hill, where water drains across a low in big storms. I promptly slip on loose dirt and land - oh, so gracefully - on my rump. Only my pride injured, we continue on.

The ravages of drought (summer of 2009 and current) are quite evident. Up on top of the hill, live oak skeletons jut above dead or stressed Ashe junipers. I'm betting if the junipers are this color, they are goners. Fall color, Texas-style!

We spy this field of rocks to our left. I'd like to come up with some clever play on "Field of Dreams" but I just don't have it in me today. I will say that we grow great rocks here in Hays County. It's our best crop.

All too soon we arrive at this locked gate. I figure two locks are a pretty strong indicator that the owner is not interested in receiving visitors. We turn around.

My daughter points out the Ashe juniper berries, which are a lovely shade of blue. I in turn admire the interesting texture and color of some live oak deadfall.

Iris the dog leads the way. The road is dotted with cowpies left by Henrietta (do you remember her? She has been wandering loose on this road recently).

We pass by our property heading south toward Henrietta's home pasture, admiring our next door neighbors' well-tended, cross-fenced property - a sharp contrast to our place where nature reigns supreme. Down the way, we note the broken fence Henrietta has repurposed as a gate. 

Some might consider our next discovery gruesome, but we think it is our most interesting find: a coyote carcass. We hear coyotes frequently, but see them never. This carcass is quite desiccated and not too stinky. I suspect it may have been shot by Henrietta's owners and hung on the fence as a warning to its pack mates. "Keep out!!"
A short way past this treasure, some cattle panels have been rigged to block the road. My guess is that this was done to keep Henrietta from reaching the county road (in lieu of fixing the fence!). We turn around again.

At the corner of our property and the well-tended neighbors' is a small gap that we decide to use to get back home, just for fun. My daughter is convinced that I won't be able to squeeze through, but I do. She, of course, has no trouble.

The original purpose of this walk was to find fall color, so we track down one fall-blooming wildflower we both adore:  wood-sorrel (Oxalis Drummondii). Nearby, we spy what we think are Texas bluebonnet seedlings, germinated after our recent rains. 

Home again, two happy girls after a lovely autumn walk.

Friday, October 21, 2011

On hanging laundry.

The only color in my yard this summer came from clean laundry 
flapping in the breeze and backlit by the sun.

When our children were very young, we lived on 10 acres of Blackland Prairie east of Austin, home to Johnson grass, bluebonnets, two trees and scads of fire ants. We were poor as church mice. When our second-hand dryer broke down, I was forced to engage in the vintage activity of hanging laundry out to dry. My husband built an iconic clothesline behind our rent house, with two galvanized iron T posts and four lines strung between.

I hated it.  I hated it as much for its symbolism of our status in the world as for its inconveniences. In summer, the clothes were stiff as boards, and about as comfortable to wear. Our underwear dangled for the world to ogle. Yellow jackets crawled over the clothes, pins and lines, waiting to zap the laundress. In winter, clothes wouldn’t dry, and so we draped them all about our very small house. But more pressingly in my young mind, CIVILIZED PEOPLE SHOULD OWN A CLOTHES DRYER!

When our fortunes improved, I bought a dryer and never looked back.

That is, until we faced the same situation here on the hill. Broken dryer, not enough scratch to purchase another. This time Dan strung clothesline between oaks in a small motte outside the laundry room. It was winter, and we frequently resorted to drying clothes over the stair rail and on hangers in doorways.

My in-laws saw our plight, and very generously gave us a dryer for Christmas.

But something had changed in me since those early years. Perhaps it was a deeper appreciation of nature, or a diminished concern for what others think, or a greater interest in the wellbeing of the planet (sounds lofty).

I now enjoy hanging laundry. Saving electricity - for my pocketbook and the planet - is how I justify the extra time it requires.  But really, I just love it.

I love the small break from inside work. Standing outside with clean, fragrant laundry in my hands, I feel the breeze and the warm, healing sunshine on my face; listen to birds singing, insects whirring, and maybe far overhead an airplane droning; look around at the trees, grass, flowers, and a vulture soaring overhead in the blue, blue sky.  These are stolen moments of peace in a cacophonous world.

Did my great-grandmothers feel this way about laundry? Their world was simpler. Perhaps this was just another household chore among many, without the luxury of a stand-by dryer. I hope that they stopped occasionally to enjoy their natural surroundings, took a deep breath of clean air as I do, and returned to their other chores rejuvenated.

Now, it’s time to bring in the laundry.

Favorite spot in the garden:

This may not look like much to you, but – hallelujah! - green stuff is growing in my yard! It seems like eons since we had a green lawn, but probably it’s been about four months. (I use the term “lawn” very loosely. These green seedlings are probably grass, wildflowers and  . . .  well, weeds.) Whenever I glance out, I must smile.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Better late than never - GBBD!

 Two days late, two dollars short?

I did take pictures on Oct. 15 of things blooming in my yard for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day (hosted by May Dreams Gardens), but did not get them posted that day.

But, better late than never, here they are. Thanks to near 3" of rain a week and a half ago and more moderate temperatures, some of my garden residents have begun blooming. This is the most things I've seen blooming at once in four months or so. Hurrah!

Flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii)
Copper rain lily. I bought
one of these, but this
is an offspring. Yay!

Autumn sage (Salvia greggii)

Pink and cream lantana
(Lantana camara?)
Trailing lantana, white variety (Lantana montevidensis)

Fall aster (Symphotrichum oblongifolium) is blooming a little,
much to my surprise. It suffered this summer.
Pigeonberry (Rivina
)  - one survived
and one did not.

I thought this purple oxalis died
earlier this summer,
but it was hybernating
until cooler weather!
These tropical sages (Salvia coccinea)
were pesky in my garden, and I've pulled
them all. Now they volunteer in
unmanaged areas. When it rains they
perk up; when it doesn't, they die back.