Sunday, September 22, 2013

First day of fall - let's plant!

Fall may be approaching.
This cactus had no label. It's actually
about 12 inches tall - looks huge here!

Don't get too excited. Don't put away the shorts and sandals just yet.

Last night we slept with windows open for the first time in three months. It was lovely.

Today, with birthday money in my pocket, my daughter and I stopped at our local nursery. I found a cool columnar cactus and a beautiful Buddleja or butterfly bush. She found the strangest little plant called a stone plant. She told her Dad later it looked like a troll's toe. It does.

This afternoon I spent time in my garden, doing some fall planting. I know that fall is the best time for planting in Central Texas. Unfortunately, I don't always do what is best. This extends to more than gardening. Hence the Friday night chocolate binges followed by Saturday morning migraines.

But I had new plants! And it was beautiful outside! So I planted.

I also piled up some topsoil in a mound and planted a desert willow given to me by my mother-in-law a few weeks back. It looks saddened by its sojourn in its pot, but I hope that it will perk up now that it has been permanently placed. I'm not showing you a picture of that - that's a blogger's privilege. We only have to show you what makes us look good.

This Buddleja did have an i.d. It was on the pot, which I promptly threw away.
Guess I'd better dig that out of the bin.

On another note, perhaps you have noticed it's been a long time since my last post. In July, I picked up a contract job that took a bit of time. A broken camera proved to be another obstacle to posting. I took the pictures here with my phone; the quality is, well, not good.

About a month ago, I started work full time with Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. I am working on web content for the state parks division, and I'm tickled pink.

Blogging will have to take a back seat to the paying job, but I will try to post occasionally.

Happy first day of fall!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Summertime . . . .

If you can't read this, it says 105F.
Well, summer has arrived in Central Texas. It's even worse in other areas, but I'm not there, I'm here. And it's hot.

Hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, if we had one. Which we don't.

Hotter 'n hell. Well, probably not.

From my husband, master of colorful metaphors and similes:  Hotter than frog legs in a frying pan.

And appropriate for our house:  so hot the chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs.

Anyway, you get the idea. If you have any fun things to add, feel free. Keep it clean, though. This is a family enterprise.

This is what my east bed and my beautiful phlox look like after the sun has its way with them - taken at about 1 p.m.

We have to shade our veggies here in Texas. We learned this trick last year, and it does prolong the life of our garden a little while.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A pond story

Last year we put together a small water feature outside our living room window (you can read about that here). I thought it would be pretty, and that we would enjoy the soothing sounds of trickling water, both outside and, when we could open windows, inside.

But it has been so much more.

Last week my daughter called me to come look at something. I was halfway up the stairs toting the vacuum cleaner (why is that invariably when someone calls for you?). Somewhat grumpily, I set the vacuum cleaner down on the landing and trudged back down to my daughter, who was pointing out the window at the new pond.

“Look, it’s the snake,” she said.

Sure enough, a checkered garter snake was swimming in the pond.  We have seen this non-venomous snake in this area many times (see Just a member of the family).

Grumpiness be gone.

We watched him as he swam around. Soon he began writhing under the water splashing into the pond from the water spigot. He did this several times – at first we thought he was trapped under it, but soon we concluded he was doing this because it felt good.

The goldfish were also swimming about, no doubt watching him warily. We decided this was a different, smaller snake than we’ve seen here before, and that the goldfish are big enough to be safe. My daughter was concerned, however, about the small leopard frog who also lives in the pond.

Bees drink from this pond all day long, gathering on the edge in a cluster, and then flying off to their work. One day my daughter told me she had touched a bee on its back – how cool is that.  I wondered if this snake might eat bees.

My nature lover daughter could only watch from afar for so long, and then she headed outside. Mr. Snake watched her draw near, and then beat a hasty retreat to the rock pile in the corner.

When I swung by the window 15 minutes later, he was back, swimming around, resting his head on the rock or edge of the pond, writhing under the waterfall.

Meanwhile, a female painted bunting came fluttering by for the drink. I stood still, thinking, “Watch out for the snake, little bird!” Instead of perching on the rock to get a drink, where she would be within the snake’s reach, she lit on the water spigot about a foot above the pond. I watched her lean over to snatch drops of water from the spigot’s spout. Smart bunting.

I decided two things about the little snake:  it was hungry and it was hot. The pond took care of both of his problems, apparently.

We’ve not seen him since. Nor have we seen the little frog.

Favorite spot in the garden:

Several years ago my friend Lona gave me some  phlox after I admired her very healthy stand. I planted them in the wrong place, with too much shade. They did not thrive. After three years or so, I figured out the problem. I moved them over about three feet to a sunnier location. This spring, they are putting on quite a show for me, and I “ooh” and “ah” every time I walk by. Garden success!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dodder must go.

A scourge is upon my land.  A plague.  A ­­­pestilence.

Perhaps I’m overstating.  Let me backtrack.

Several years ago one of my gardening gurus, while perusing my garden, commented, “Oh, you have dodder.”

I had noticed this plant (Cuscuta sp.), twining over two native black daleas (Dalea frutescens), but was unsure of its identification. After ascertaining that it was also a native, I just let it be. Periodically, I would pull off the vines and clean up the daleas.

This year, I decided to be more proactive, and began pulling off the yellow, stringy vines earlier in the process. But the strangest thing happened. The more I pulled, the more the plant grew. Days after I spent 20 minutes pulling, the daleas were covered over again.

I looked around, and noticed small clumps of dodder in my yard, draped over prairie fleabane (Erigeron modestus).

It was time for research. After said research, it’s become crystal clear that I’ve made a terrible mistake letting dodder become established.

Dodder is a parasite.  It grows from seed, shooting up a small tendril. When the tendril encounters something to wrap around, it does so. From the website for the University of California’s Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program:

“Seedlings are dependent on carbohydrates stored in the seed (cotyledons) until they attach to a suitable host. When it contacts a host, the stem coils around the host plant and produces little structures called haustoria that penetrate the host’s vascular tissue. The dodder plant begins to extract nutrients and water from the host, and its connection to the soil withers and dries.”

Sounds kind of like a horror movie, doesn’t it?

According to Mr. Smarty Plants at the Wildflower Research Center, about 24 species of dodder live in Texas. They produce seed prolifically, and the seeds can lay dormant in the soil for 20 years.  Also, if you remove a tendril that has a haustoria, it remains viable for several days. It has lots of fun names: love vine, strangleweed, devil's-guts, goldthread, pull-down, devil's-ringlet, hellbine, hairweed, devil's-hair, and hailweed. Some of these names are very apt.

Dodder can only live on certain host plants, and apparently dalea and prairie fleabane are two of those. I don’t have many daleas. I have a whole lot of prairie fleabane.

Yesterday, I yanked up every fleabane (also some Dahlburg daisies) with dodder and tossed them in the trash. According to UC, I missed a step. I should have sealed them in plastic bags, so they won’t root elsewhere. (You know it's bad when you are supposed to seal it in plastic before discarding!)

Unfortunately, the daleas must go, also. Removing the host plants is the only way to get rid of this stuff, when it is so well established. Then I will need to replant the area with something dodder can’t use. If the dodder seedlings can’t attach to a suitable host in 5 to 10 days, they will die.

Then all I have to do is spend the next 20 years or so diligently removing new plants and their hosts.

Good grief.

Favorite spot in the garden:

The zexmenia (Wedelia texana) have taken up with the narrow-leaf dayflower (Commelina erecta var. angustifolia - I think) outside my kitchen window, and it's a very serendipitous pairing. These are volunteer natives. Aren't they lovely?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Life's Wheel

This plant is unknown, but seems
to enjoy our woods!
                    These past few weeks in my English Honors class, we have been reading Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. Frequently used throughout the story is the metaphor : "Life is a Wheel." These past few weeks, I for once decided to actually try to LEARN, and READ (shocking, I know) in Mrs. H's class, and I discovered that it was slightly (okay maybe REALLY) worth it.

Peach. sadly not ripe.
Our squash plant's leaves
after a good drink

Today, I went out to cater to my chickens, and decided to take a while, and ride my life's wheel. I lay with my back to the ground, and stared up at the sky, partly obscured by jealous trees. I took deep breaths, and felt the woods hum about me. The ash junipers stood still, moved by the occasional rogue wind, and the summertime air was hot, and dense. It was glorious. There is almost nothing better in this life, than standing in the woods, oblivious to human nature, and society, and listening to life itself.    

Ashe Juniper (cedar) trees. Again, in the corner, is the mystery plant.

This is our peach tree's trunk. Oddly enough, it seems to enjoy growing in our chicken pen!

Gray Santolina, ever cheerful.

Mexican Hat. We happen to have a ginormous patch of it near
our veggie garden.
So now the yuccas bloom, the verbena flower, the bees cluster around the ponds, and I head for  my 12th summer vacation. I suggest, this summer, that you all take a minute or two, to simply ride life's wheel, instead of driving.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Scenes from the Wildflower Center's Garden Tour

This garden's standing cypress was stunning.
While we were on the Great Nursery Tour of 2013 (last week), I commented to my friend that we should definitely go on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s next Garden Tour. It was sure to have many interesting gardens, and would feature lots of native plants. 

Later that day, I popped open Facebook, and a notification jumped out at me:  the Wildflower  Center’s tour was the coming weekend (May 11). Mind you, my entire family was coming to celebrate my dad’s 75th birthday on this day.

I love this combination!
Did that deter me? Oh no.

Bright and early Saturday morning, we (Lona, my dad and I) jumped in the car and headed to Austin on a schedule. We were determined to see two, maybe three of the gardens and be home by lunchtime.

Detail of the fern wall (on the left under the porch
overhang in the large photo above). A/C condensate
provides water for this feature, according to the handout.

After a lengthy discussion, not only about which gardens to visit and in what order, but also about how much trouble we have making decisions, we made a plan and then executed it. We managed to visit three gardens, and had a lovely morning communing with plants and other gardeners.

And yes, we made it home by lunch and before the other guests arrived. I even had time to spiff up the bathroom!

Hope you enjoy a few pictures of what we saw. I really would like to visit more of the gardens on next year’s tour.

This area is beyond the pool in the photo above.

More detail from the same garden.
Because the lot was steeply sloped,
the garden required extensive terracing (left).
I really liked this bird watering station (above).

My dad, enjoying the deck. Behind him is a view of the Austin skyline.
We also liked the succulent garden centerpieces.

This succulent garden literally stopped me in my tracks. It greeted visitors at the last house we visited, which also was sited on a steeply sloped lot, with a wildflower meadow, orchard, vegetable garden, pond, buffalo grass lawn, etc.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Nursery Tour 2013

"This one? Or this one? Hmmm."
Many years ago, a dear friend and I began a tradition of visiting a new nursery each spring. We would spend hours at our chosen business, looking at demonstration gardens and debating the merits of this plant versus that plant. I would soak up her plant knowledge.

We had children in tow (her youngest is 15, mine 11) until they started school. Luckily, many nurseries supply little red wagons just for entertaining small children. Oh, those are for hauling plants? That works, too.

Over the years, we have visited every nursery we could get to during the school day.

On our trips, we talk about all manner of things:  children (our oldest sons are best friends and have been since kindergarten – they are men now), careers (she is a fine artist, and you can see her work here), and husbands (no comment).

And of course, we discuss and admire lovely plants. We are not landscapers, but plant collectors. Usually we discover some new plant to add to our collection. Because we are frugal, each plant choice requires much thoughtful debate and consideration.

Audra made us feel welcome at Bloom.
Yesterday we visited two nurseries, beginning with Bloom in nearby Dripping Springs. I had been there many years ago; this was Lona’s first visit. The nursery surrounds an old house. As is practical in a small town, the business has two sides: the house holds a bakery and lunch place called Thyme and Dough. We found some plants we needed that we hadn't seen elsewhere. We also found some sweets. We give the nursery and bakery our seal of approval.

Wildflower meadow at The Natural Gardener.
Next, we headed north to The Natural Gardener, one of the premier nurseries in Austin. We visited here last when my daughter was young. Truth be told, we did not love this nursery. It sold plants mostly in 1-gallon containers – too pricey for us. But it had some nice demonstration gardens. This made it the perfect destination for this year’s excursion:  a place with things to look at, but not to buy.

Or so we thought.

I was wowed by this garden art at The Natural Gardener. I am standing under a cedar gazebo.
This is a good use of a water feature
for a drought-prone area!

We spent quite a bit of time wandering through the demonstration gardens, much expanded since our last visit. We saw a labyrinth, a ground guitar surrounded by grass plots and a wildflower meadow, a kitchen/medicinal garden, animals (chickens and goats), a vegetable garden, and much more.

Then we headed over to the sales area. This nursery offers lots of xeric plants, with a wide selection of yuccas, agaves and succulents, as well as some of the usual annuals. Soon we came to those perennials sold in one-gallon pots.

Look at all the lovelies!
But wait, what was this?  A whole row of perennials in 4” pots – oh nooooooooo!

Overall, we were proud of our restraint. We came home with a reasonable amount of plants to fill existing holes in the garden. I have already put most of mine into their holes (supposedly rain is on its way!).

More importantly, we enjoyed a lovely day catching up on each other’s news and admiring beautiful plants and gardens. I think we should continue this tradition. What do you think, Lona?

Kitchen/medicinal garden designed by Austin designer Lucinda Hutson.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Where the wild things are: on the hill!

Walking sticks have appeared
on our porch.
It must be spring, because all kinds of wild creatures are presenting themselves for observation at our country home.

We’ve seen some rare-to-us birds in the last few weeks. A golden-cheeked warbler perched on a branch outside our picture window a week ago, begging to be observed. These warblers actually are rare: they are listed as an endangered species. They only nest in the oak-juniper woodlands of Central Texas, and boy, do we have lots of home sites for them! We have continued to see him occasionally, and this morning we saw two––maybe a pair nesting nearby? This is the ultimate for an amateur naturalist––providing habitat for an endangered species!

Although this is a terrible picture, perhaps it's the perfect picture of a rare, shy endangered bird. Can you find him?
A Nashville warbler has been hanging around for several weeks, enjoying the birdbath. On Sunday, a summer tanager spent the day with us. We heard his call and knew he was not one of our regular visitors.  He finally landed on our picnic table so we could identify him.

Pine siskin (left) and Carolina chickadee
enjoy the seeds.

Another harbinger of spring (not at all rare) has arrived: chuck-will’s-widows. We’ve been hearing their night calls for several weeks.

A cottontail has been hopping around the yard. When we first moved in, many cottontails lived here. But we brought two cats and a dog with us, and the rabbits moved out.  We’re down to one rickety cat now, and this dog isn’t interested in chasing them.  I guess the rabbits (or at least this one) decided it was safe to return.

Our resident checkered garter snake finally woke up from his winter nap. My daughter and I startled him this weekend as he swam with the goldfish. He leaped out of the pond, and then slithered away slowly, and if to say, “Yeah, I’m back. It’s no big deal.” 

That same afternoon, I walked out into a field to inspect the first prickly pear bloom and heard a rustling to my left. I looked over to see a rather large snake crawling up a cedar tree.  I came back with binoculars and my budding herpetologist, and we spied him lounging on a branch about 40 feet high. We think he was a coach whip.

The fire ants are busy making trails across the driveway.
Of course, the whitetail deer are ever present. A pair skittered away as I went to my car one day last week. We don’t usually see them near the house, thanks to the presence of our dog, Iris.

Other recent sightings include a leopard frog squatting on the edge of the minnow pond. He appears to be dozing, but I’m sure if something edible came within reach he would leap into action. Lots of squirrels have been raiding our black oil sunflower feeders. My husband has harvested a few of them for our table. Free range, hormone-free, and . . . free! And before you ask, they taste like chicken––little bitty chickens.

Night before last, a coyote chorus serenaded us. We were sleeping with the windows open, on a quiet spring night. We awoke to the sounds of yipping and howling from the next-door neighbor’s property. I lay there smiling, because their song was so clear and distinct and perfect for the night. They sang for only a few moments, and then slipped away to their next engagement.

Oh, how I love living in the country!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Cool plant #2: Escarpment black cherry

Shortly after we built our house, we noticed an interesting tree tucked into a live oak motte down by the shack – er, Men’s Institute of Higher Learning. We didn’t recognize it, and neither did our family plant expert, my mother-in-law Mary Anne Pickens. Ah well.

Several years ago we noticed it blooming in the spring, and as a result were able to make an identification:  Escarpment black cherry (Prunus serotina var.  eximia). So far as we know, it is the only one on our property. Our specimen is 30 feet tall and lovely.

Voila! I present the second in my occasional series on species endemic to my area!

According to the Wildflower Center website, the escarpment black cherry is a “distinct and isolated geographic variety of black cherry (Prunus serotina) found only in the calcareous soils of central Texas.” It is naturally occurring from Burnet and Williamson counties south to Comal and Medina counties, and west to Kimble and Kinney counties. We are in the middle of that area.

The escarpment black cherry is the white multi-trunked tree behind the live oak leaning across in the front.
 As you can see from the picture, it sports light green leaves with light-colored branches and an open structure. It has lovely blooms in April and May, fruit, and leaves that turn yellow in the fall. We get really excited about fall color here, where our most common trees are evergreen.

Its cherries are edible, but other parts of the tree are poisonous (possibly fatal) to humans and herbivorous animals. Birds and mammals like the fruit, and a number of moths and butterflies enjoy its nectar and use it as a larval host.

The Wildflower Center notes that furniture makers like its wood for its “lustrous, dark red tint.” We have two very dear friends who make furniture. We steer them away from this tree when they visit. They can’t have it.

Here's a closer shot, with the gray water drains
coming out of the shack behind the tree.

I’ve just figured out something else about this tree. The Wildflower Center says it needs moist, but well-drained soil. At first thought, this tree’s home would not seem to be moist. Ah, think again. The tree grows near the end of the gray water pipe from the shack. When we bought the property, renters lived in the shack, which had water but no septic, only a gray water drain from a kitchen sink. Also, they used an outdoor shower (no hot water!) located nearby and slightly uphill from the tree.

It’s a wonder the beauty didn’t perish after we booted the renters and the shack sat empty. I guess the tree was established enough that it could survive without those water sources. I did water it in the terribly dry summer of 2011. It is one of my prize botanical specimens, and I want it to live!

Click here to read about another plant native to my geographic area, the twist-leaf yucca.

Favorite spot in the garden:

While hanging laundry today I looked up and saw this phalanx of twist-leaf yucca bloom stalks. My young garden helper and I gathered rocks earlier this year to put around the base of the yuccas for a rock garden effect, which makes the group stand out. I don't remember so many blooming together before. Aren't they cool?

Now some folks would wait until they bloom before taking photos. However, savvy central Texas gardeners know that deer particularly enjoy yucca bloom stalks. I imagine they taste like asparagus. There is no guarantee these will make it to full bloom. If they do, I'll take another picture!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

April showers bring . . . April flowers

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day has come and gone, but since so much is blooming at my house right now, I’m posting for it anyway! I took these pictures on April 16, on a beautiful, sunny spring morning. It’s a good thing, as today it is drizzling and much cooler after the passage of a late cold front.

Although we are in the middle of a drought, we have received just enough rain to fuel my garden and wildflowers. The grass is green, and not just over the septic tank. The oak trees have leafed out for the most part (though a green haze of oak pollen continues to build up on cars and inside surfaces). In summary, it is a beautiful spring in Central Texas!

This scene is just purty:  Nierembergia (Nierembergia gracilis "Starry Eyes") blooming in the pond bed. Do you see the tiny yellow flower in front? That is common groundcover called straggler daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis). In places, it is my lawn – and it does not need mowing.

It's spring in Texas so there must be bluebonnets (Lupinis texensis). Our best bluebonnet patch is out by the burn pile. It was looking puny until a good rain three weeks ago. Now, as you can see, the bluebonnets are happier. Blooming alongside them is our main resident wildflower, the prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida).

 On the left is some sort of wildly beautiful iris. My iris bed has donated and one-off purchased irises, so I’ve got no idea what this one is. That does not stop me from appreciating it. On the right:  columbines (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinckleyana, I think)!

I’ve posted a picture of this area recently, but since then these Texas stars (Lindheimera texana) have taken over their corner of the bed. You get to see them again. These grow in uncultivated areas of my yard, also, but do not get quite so large.

Last year I noticed this plant blooming in the wild area in front of my house. On closer inspection, I realized it was a damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana). It was the only one on my property, to my knowledge, and I did not plant it. This year a second one has appeared in the same area. Yay!

The anacacho orchid tree (Bauhinia lunarioides) is lovely, as it is every year, with its spring blooms.

This little area is one of my favorites right now. In front, cedar sages (Salvia roemeriana) shoot up stalks of deep red, with yellow accents from the four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris scaposa, I believe) against a backdrop of white autumn sage (Salvia greggii cultivar).

Out in the rock bed (which looks rather grassy at the moment), a volunteer fragrant mimosa (Mimosa borealis) has put on its pink and white puffballs. This plant occurs naturally on my land. Yellow Dahlberg daisies (Thymophylla tenuiloba) are blooming all over my yard, as is prairie verbena. The daisies are not natives, but after I planted some one year, they have self-seeded all over the front yard. This is okay by me, as I like the wildflower meadow look.

Looking out my French doors yesterday, I noticed the sun shining through the fresh green leaves of the crape myrtle and ran for the camera. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), purple oxalis (Oxalis triangularis?) and wandering Jew (Tradescantia pallida) live underneath. The red bloomer is tropical sage (Salvia coccinea). This and the following picture are really more foliage shots, so I will be posting on Digging's Foliage Follow-up, also.

Last but definitely not least, I present this grouping out by the parking area. The only plant blooming here is the Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa - not a native), but isn’t it pretty with the century plants (Agave americana), nolina (Nolina lindheimeriana), woolly butterfly bush (Buddleja marrubiifolia) and cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens)?