Thursday, September 29, 2011

Smug no more

Eight years ago we bought our property, for a good price since it was the prior owner’s personal dump (as in landfill).

We spent a year cleaning. As we cleaned, we marveled that people could live in such surroundings and not clean up, but instead add to the mess.

Scanned photo of our worksite. 
I don't have many photos; should have taken some before/after shots.
We filled a huge construction dumpster with things that couldn’t be burned:  bathtubs, construction materials, metal barrels, light fixtures, insulation, tires, appliances, household garbage. We burned that much stuff again:  sofas, wood scraps, carpeting, cardboard, boxes of papers and water-stained books. We somehow convinced a neighbor to haul away a shabby camper that was populated by hot plates (hmm). We dismantled another and stuffed its components into the dumpster. We recycled a great number of beer bottles and cans. We carefully disposed of hypodermic needles when we ran across them. We still find bits of broken glass.

You get the picture.

After taking up residence in our new house, we gazed around quite smugly. “Look what a good deed we have done,” we told ourselves. We had returned this lovely piece of land to a more natural state. It was no longer a trashy eyesore.


Of course, we do not trash our property. We are very cognizant of throwing refuse in receptacles.  We love our land and want it to be naturally beautiful, not decorated by man’s detritus. Besides, it would be impossible to maintain our smugness if we turned around and re-trashed this property – right?

Imagine my dismay when my gaze started falling on trash strewn about our property – not trash from prior residents but from the current ones. Us! As I walked about, I noticed bits of weed eater string, twisties, Kleenexes,
fragments of
bottle tops,
pen lids, 4” plastic pots (ahem), etc.

This is sneaky trash. You know the kind. Trash spread unintentionally. Where does this stuff come from? Picture Pigpen walking around shedding dirt. I think that is how we humans shed trash.

We have a dog that chews stuff, and a child who plays outside with stuff, cars that transport stuff, pockets that overflow with stuff, and wind that carries stuff away. Occasionally a norther topples the trash bin and spills its stuff. (I ask you, what is a dog supposed to do in these circumstances?)

So now, we have embarked on the second round of clean-up. My daughter and I try to pick up little bits of trash whenever we are out wandering. Hopefully the volume of stuff we pick up will diminish over time.

The smugness is already gone. That’s good. It’s an unattractive trait.

Favorite spot in the garden today:

I know, I know, you’ve seen this already. But it is, hands down, the prettiest spot in my garden so you get to see it AGAIN. This spot gets good run-off from the roof, and the ½ inch we got over three days last weekend shows. Luckily, this is right by my front step:  Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides), Lindheimer muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri), and spineless prickly pear (Opuntia ellisiana).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Snow White and me

Six years ago, we built our two-story house on acreage here in Hays County. We were curious what our view would be from upstairs, and sent our middle son shinnying up a tree to give us a report. He couldn’t see much but tree branches.

When the house was framed, we climbed a ladder to the second floor to take in that view. Gazing in all directions through the window openings, we were astonished. We discovered that we were above the treetops, and could see miles of trees all around – and not a single rooftop or sign of civilization.

View northeast from an upstairs window.

We were thrilled. We had all the privacy we had yearned for. We could almost pretend we were alone in the wilderness. The trees sheltered us, enclosed us, even embraced us. We painted our house green, and finished it with cedar posts and limestone rocks, all so we would nestle in as part of this environment. We gladly settled into our Hill Country haven.

But over Labor Day weekend, when multiple fires ignited all over Central Texas, suddenly our woods did not look so welcoming. As I scanned for fire with my binoculars from those upstairs windows, the thrashing trees seem to be pulsing with a different sort of energy – a malevolent sort.

Remember Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, when Snow White stumbles through the woods at night, terrified as tree branches reach for her, waving about threateningly? Her lovely natural world (singing birds, dancing bunnies, lovely flowers) had turned against her.

I was Snow White for those few days, as the wind gusted, smoke filled the air, and images of our Central Texas neighbors’ incinerated homes filled the newscasts.

This is the view from my back doorstep. Brush line is about 30 feet away.
Since the fires, I have spent some time watching forest service videos and reading news releases. I want our house to be one that survives a wildfire. We have a good start, with a tin roof and cement siding. But more can be done.

I have decided to take action on something we have known for awhile: the brushy woods are too close to our home. For the last week, I have been venturing forth, wielding my loppers to thin the underbrush and raise the canopy on the perimeter of our cleared yard. Sunday I even revved up my very own chainsaw. (If you could see my skinny arms, you would fully grasp the alarming nature of this statement.)

The big Ashe juniper on the right is at the edge of our cleared yard.
These wispy tree-lings will be gone soon!
This work will improve our “defensible space,” as the firefighters term the area around a home.  I feel a bit like a homesteader, improving my land. It is a good way to reconnect with the land and trees.

As it did for Snow White, my natural world has returned to its friendly, nurturing state. I’m still waiting for the dancing bunnies to appear, however.

Favorite spot in the garden:

Texas lantana! Give it a bit of rain, some cooler nights, and off it goes! This is Lantana urticoides, a.k.a. L. horrida.  According to the Wildflower Research Center website, another common name for it is "calico bush," though I've not heard that name used.

When it was the only thing blooming in my garden during our last dry summer (2009), I added another. I really think it should be plunked down all over my place.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A few lovely blooms.

I had not planned on posting for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day (hosted by May Dreams Gardens) this month, as things are generally quite grim here in Central Texas. But last night as I wandered the yard tallying dying trees (!), I noticed - plants blooming!

We had a small break in the heat last week (followed by multiple 100 degree days this week), and with a little watering these few burst into bloom. What a welcome sight!

Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides or L. horrida) - I love this plant!
It seems to do best when conditions are worst, though these are the most blooms
I've seen on it this year. It is backed by spineless prickly pear and Lindheimer muhly
(about 1/3 of the size they should be).
Trailing lantana (Lantana montevidenses)

One lonely blackfoot daisy
(Melampodium leucanthum)

And the piece de resistance - Autumn sage (Salvia greggii). 
Perhaps fall is approaching after all!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

It's not my fault!

From left, nolina, Jerusalem sage and agave, given no supplemental water.
Hurrah!!! I’m so relieved. What a load off my mind! Whew!

The stats are in, and it’s not my fault.  (I’m still looking around for a politician to blame, however.)

According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), many atrocious records were set this summer in Texas. Here’s a list as of Sept. 9:
  • Warmest August on record (same for Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana).
  • Texas’ June-August average temperature was the hottest ever recorded for any state (86.8 F) – Oklahoma was second (86.5 F).
  • March-August average temperature in Texas was the warmest on record here.
  • It’s also the warmest year-to-date average temperature on record here (69.9 F).
  • This was Texas’ driest January to August period on record.
  • 2011 was Texas’ driest summer on record; statewide average rainfall was 2.44 inches (5.25 inches below long-term average).
  • According to NOAA, “The Palmer Hydrologic Drought Index indicated that parts of Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas are experiencing drought of greater intensity, but not yet duration, than those of the 1930s and 1950s. Drought intensity refers to the rate at which surface and ground water is lost, due to a combination of several factors, including evaporation and lack of precipitation.”
  • And more, “An analysis of Texas statewide tree-ring records dating back to 1550 indicates that the summer 2011 drought in Texas is matched by only one summer (1789), indicating that the summer 2011 drought appears to be unusual even in the context of the multi-century tree-ring record.”

This area looks pretty, though it's not flourishing. It gets
a couple of hours' soak every three to five days.
Looking out the window or strolling around the yard, it is so hard not to take the devastation personally. I look online at blogs – even those in my area – and see plants blooming that died in my yard months ago.  

Perhaps I haven’t chosen the right plants, I say. But almost all of my garden denizens are natives or are plants considered adaptable to my area. 

Perhaps I’m not watering enough. Other gardeners have fancy drip systems, with timers and whatnot. But I’m already watering more than I ought to, given the drought and worries about our future water supply.

Maybe I should have built shade covers. Really? Over the whole yard?

I shouldn’t have made so many beds in areas that get full sun. Okay, that’s unreasonable– you work with what you have, right? My house is on top of a sunny hill. Ergo, sunny beds.

I know, I didn’t hold my mouth right.

But now, the truth has been revealed. The spring and summer of 2011 have been terribly hot and terribly dry.

It’s not my fault that so many of my plants have died. The state of my flowerbeds and yard is not a reflection of my gardening talents. I could improve the irrigation situation, and I will definitely have the opportunity to rethink plant choices in those sunny, hot beds. But really, IT’S NOT MY FAULT.

I feel so much better.

Favorite spot in the garden:

I think I will call this the resurrection plant. I stuck two pads of spineless prickly pear (Opuntia ellisiana - maybe, but a large pad variety) by the front parking area three years ago. They were supposed to be anchored by a flowering shrub. One held on and started growing while the other promptly died. I thought. Several weeks ago I went out to hand water the latest shrub offering (Mexican bird of paradise - Caesalpinia mexicana - tough!)), and noticed a new green pad on the old, dead, desiccated pad. Amazing!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fires all around.

Nature has played a cruel, cruel trick on us.  The tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico that forecasters said might bring us rain, has instead brought gusty winds. When mixed with tinder dry brush, high temperatures, low humidity – disaster.

Major fires are rampaging all over Central Texas (and other areas), including the most horrendous, in Bastrop. As of this morning, 14,000 acres burned, 350 homes destroyed or damaged, near half of Bastrop State Park charred.

We live in the middle of a cedar/live oak thicket that has been deprived of moisture for almost a year. Even those tough cedar trees are wilting now.  Those of us who live out here are fearful. To add to that sense of unease, our subdivision has only one exit – for over 200 homes distributed down little winding roads tucked under trees.

I made frequent trips upstairs yesterday to scan the horizon with my binoculars. I’m afraid we might not have much time to get out if a fire comes roaring toward us from the north. I also ventured outside often to sniff for smoke.

We hosted a small party last night. About 4 p.m., it dawned on me that we would be lighting a barbecue for hamburgers. One of my neighbors helped me wet down the ground around the pit (which sits on a rock patio), telling me about the time she burned 300 acres of neighboring ranch land, when she left a trash fire unattended for a few moments.

During the course of the evening, another friend received notification that friends of his had lost their home in the Bastrop fire. And the air filled with smoke from a fire burning north of us in Dripping Springs.

Today is forecasted to be even worse, as a cool front adds its might to the hurricane gusts. The fires from yesterday are not out. Firefighters are maxed out, without enough manpower to stop the flames.

Send good thoughts.