Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Whoo-ee, it's hot out thar.

A beautiful yaupon, right by the driveway.

We have just emerged from the hottest weekend of a very hot summer. On Sunday, the temperature was 108 F on my porch, and 111 F on the north side of the house. It was the hottest day we have experienced at this house.

The oddest thing about these sweltering days was the quiet. My assistant and I were out hanging laundry midday on Saturday (105 F) and noticed how eerily quiet it was. The sound of cicadas was muted. The birds were quiet. No dogs were barking, or children shouting. No neighbors were busy with weekend projects – no hammers banging rhythmically, no chainsaws revving up and down, no lawnmowers growling back and forth.  No wind. Just . . . quiet.

It was as if all of Hays County – man, beast, plant, even the earth - were conserving energy, just trying to survive.

We retreated inside to watch a movie.

Unfortunately, this heat is administering the coup de grace to many plants on my property. I will have lots of opportunities to try new plants this fall (if it rains) or next spring (if it rains).  Every time I go outside to water, another plant is gone. Heartbreaking.

Even worse is the loss of trees. Eight live oak trees (that we know of) are gone, and three more seem to be on the way out. It happens so fast: The last three were fine last week, but are not fine today. Almost all the yaupons have turned brown. I’m afraid to go look at my huge Texas redbuds behind the house; from here all I see are brown leaves. Texas mountain laurels are turning yellow. Flame-leaf sumacs are dying. Hackberries are suffering terribly. I'm hoping many of these will be resurrected by rain.

The heat will subside. We know that to be true. There’s a chance of rain this weekend. But we are so beaten down by drought and heat that we can’t believe it. We will get excited when the drops are pounding down on our heads, and not before.

Dead oaks and flame-leaf sumacs.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Just doodling around . . .

Doodle, doodle, doodle,
Bug, bug, bug.
Doodle, doodle, doodle,
Bug, bug, bug.
That doodle would jump up and look all around,
And doodle back in the ground.

When my boys were young (now they are 21 and 19!), we had a set of cassettes called “Animal Folk Songs for Children.”  These cassettes contained all manner of fun folk songs, but the one I really liked at the time still lurks in the back of my mind. Periodically it surges to the fore, and I have to sing it (I may not remember the words correctly).

What leads to this vocal eruption is the sight of the little doodlebug pits. This year we have several large colonies (do they colonize?), more than I remember having before.

As a child, I remember doggedly digging to catch one of the little critters. I never could. I did not know the proper technique. I didn’t even know what they looked like.  (I was not a brave child, so it’s a wonder I was willing to go burrowing into the dirt after an unknown insect.)

Of course my daughter catches them easily. Here’s her technique: She grabs a big handful of sand that contains the pit, then streams the sand through a narrow opening in her hand into her other hand, until the doodlebug lands on her palm.

Doodlebugs, or antlions (Myrmeleon spp.), are the larvae of insects resembling damselflies. The larvae make their pits by burrowing into the dirt backwards, moving in a circle and flinging sand out using upward jerks of their heads. They lurk in the bottom of the inverted sphere with only their jaws exposed, waiting for a passing ant or other small insect to fall in.  Each larva, according to A Field Guide to Common Texas Insects, digs multiple traps as it develops. The Antlion Pit (a website devoted to all things antlion) says the bigger the hole, the hungrier the antlion! 

It's clear how they got the name "antlion." But what about "doodlebug"? The Antlion Pit says that name comes from the doodles the critters leave in the sand as they move around. I'll have to go look for those!

I don’t know which name I like more – doodlebug or antlion.  There is that catchy little song. But, picture tiny lions laying in wait, then springing out with a roar to attack even tinier ants – roar!!!!!! 

These little critters are considered beneficial insects because of their ant depredations. So take your pom-poms and head out to the nearest antlion colony to cheer them on:  GO BIG LIONS!

Favorite spot in the garden today:

Even the prickly pear are desiccated.
Due to our drought, much of the native grasses have moved past the gold color we often see in hot spells into the rust that we see in the winter.  As a result, the roadsides are quite beautiful right now, if you can avoid thinking about why they are this lovely color.

As I was walking around our place recently, I noticed a pretty little grouping – green prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri) surrounded by red clumps of little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium). These clumps are usually a foot or two in diameter, and should be sending up seed stalks about now. Instead they are about 6" in diameter, and nary a stalk can be found. 

When I went out to take the photo this morning, I discovered a lone red tuna atop the cactus.

Even in deep environmental distress, beauty can be found!

Down the driveway.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Postcard from Texas

Pavonia blooms.
Howdy from central Texas! I know you are really glad you are not here this summer - during the worst one-year drought on record!!

Even in the midst of the drought, a few plants are brightening my yard. The only bloomers are on the east side of the house so they get late afternoon shade, and in the bed that I water regularly. Other than that, nothing is blooming on our twelve acres. Absolutely nothing. No wildflowers, no trees, no grasses.

So let us enjoy these beauties, and dream of blooms to come when it rains again.

Pavonia - rock rose.

Lovely purple
morning glories.
A few coneflower blooms remain.

At one time my mother-in-law told me the name of this plant, a start of which was given to me by a neighbor.  But I've slept since then. It's a great pot plant, that spreads quickly and easily, doesn't require much water, and look - it has the coolest little discrete maroon flowers!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

And the drought goes on . . .

Flame-leaf sumac in fall attire - but it's not fall, yet!

My daughter tells me that people prefer to read funny posts, but it’s hard to find anything funny in this situation. Laughing tends to morph into hysterical cackling (see above). But here goes.

It’s so hot and dry that the birds tap on the window when the water is low in the birdbath. "Excuse me, a little dry out here!"

It’s so hot even the rocks are sweating.

It’s so hot and dry that laundry on the line dries in 10 minutes, or five if there’s a breeze. If there’s no breeze, the clothes will stand upright when brought inside. This makes for uncomfortable underwear.

From my husband:  It’s so hot the hens are laying hard-boiled eggs.

We have our own saunas. All we have to do is get into one of our un-air-conditioned cars at 3 p.m. any day and go for a drive. Unfortunately, there’s no icy cold lake to immerse our bodies in when blood reaches the boiling point.

Hmm, are you laughing? I must confess I am not.

In front is a pomegranate badly in need of a drink.
Behind the Ashe juniper, is a group of dead and dying
trees - three oaks and several flame-leaf sumacs.
Upon returning on Sunday from a week-long trip  (thankfully in an air-conditioned car!), I was dismayed at what I saw along the driveway. The temps shot up over 100 degrees while we were gone, and the native flora is showing the impact.

August is always a slog in Texas. This year it is compounded by a severe drought, which results in higher temperatures as there is little evaporative cooling. The plants have no reserve of moisture to help them survive the hot, dry season. Our average annual rainfall is 33.75 inches; at my house we’ve had just over 10 inches this year, five of them in January.

The live oaks and the Ashe juniper are hunkering down in survival mode, for the most part. But many of the understory trees are suffering:  flame-leaf sumacs, yaupon, mountain laurels, Texas redbuds. The hackberries are losing all leaves, and cedar elms are looking puny. Our lone escarpment black cherry, which we just identified this year, looks terrible – I’m going to water it tonight because I don’t want to lose it. Everything else is on its own.

This is nature, after all. Weaker species will die when overstressed. Perhaps that’s why we have such a monoculture (duoculture?) already. The live oaks and junipers must be the hardiest species.  

Yellowing yuccas surrounded by dead grass and rocks - 
structurally interesting?
People who live in town are not confronted so directly with the reality of this situation.  I just returned from my sister’s house; her town has not implemented water restrictions.  I was mesmerized by the lazy back and forth of the sprinkler flinging sparkling drops of water into the air to hydrate her already green lawn.

Driving home from her house, we passed many brown pastures dotted with cow patties – but no cows. Most of the tanks (Texan for ponds) were extremely low or dry. With little water and no grass, many ranchers are selling all or part of their herds. I saw a few fields of cotton, but according to the news many crops this summer are a loss.

We returned home to our yellowing understory and yuccas, dead or dormant grass and dust billowing behind the car. When you live surrounded by nature and see the ravages of this drought all around you – well, it’s painful.

Sorry, it’s not a very funny post, after all.

Favorite spot in the garden:

Look! Morning glories! Pavonias are blooming in the background. 
That's it. That is all that is blooming in my garden.
Iris says, "But look at me! I'm beautiful, too!"
My garden is also in survival mode. I water daily, a little here and a little there; but the limitations of our well restrict amounts. Truly, well water is not what these plants need. They will stay alive on well water, but not flourish. To make things worse, my beds get little shade, except for the east one – the only bed with any blooming plants right now. What Pam at Digging refers to as “The Death Star” is unrelentingly blazing down on my poor little babies.

However, the other day I turned around and found this vantage point. The garden actually looks a little inviting from this angle – exciting!