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!