Blowing through the Wild Grasses

Weed or wildflower? Messy or naturalized? Everyone has an opinion, and they often differ distinctly on the same little plant or plot. Part of the pleasure of good company will always be in its variety and the interest that it brings to life. Gardening tastes are very much in that vein.

Digital illustration: Wild Grasses

As a sometime gardener, however amateur, I can think of few styles of landscaping that I don’t find appealing and attractive in their own ways. I admire the near-perfection of elaborate, formal palace gardens and magnificent, fountain-filled parks with their follies and allees. I am fond of a rustic campfire-side bramble patch, punctuated by straggly hydrangeas run wild, down by the lakeside. There is both soul refreshment and eye appeal for me in a delicate Zen garden with bonsai, laceleaf maples and a barely rippling koi pond.

When it comes to my own gardens, I tend to walk just a little farther on the wild side. I hate to fiddle and fuss at length with the hard labor of a garden. I greatly prefer the genteel pleasures of the design of the garden, and perhaps the occasional artistic pruning to shape a rhododendron or sapling tree. But I’m not so wild about back-breaking rock picking and digging; I moved from incredibly rich but equally rocky volcanic glacial till of western Washington to the cement-like red clay of Texas, both places where putting a one-gallon root ball into the ground requires a pickaxe.

My first garden was an exploration of the beauties of cottage style gardening. Washington, temperate and moist, was ideal for a grand assortment of bulbs, flowering shrubs and cutting flowers, so I had profuse blooms and constant green with little effort. The traditional cottage style allowed me to squeeze a massive amount of lively growth into a normal city house lot, and the more I wedged into the ground, the less room there was for volunteer and invasive plants. Weeds had a tough go of it there, so it wasn’t especially hard to keep ahead of them.

There are plants I don’t invite to my parties. Much as I enjoy and admire most, I’m no friend of those pest plants that choke out others, cause massive allergies, or stab at me with cruel thorns, or those that threaten entire ecosystems, mine or others’. Good riddance to misplaced English Ivy, kudzu, poison oak and wild blackberry canes. Conversely, one of my particular favorite garden options is to find ways to encourage native plants to thrive. The more a plant is suited and accustomed to its environs, the more it will grow and be healthy and attractive and weed-proof.

Texas has reinforced that love in my aggressively. It’s a harsher climate than the Pacific Northwest’s in which I now garden, so what I plant and tend must needs be up to surviving and flourishing in those more demanding circumstances—or die. Even desert plants don’t necessarily have what it takes, since north Texas can still get true freezes in winter, and occasional snow, hail and ice. This last winter, a relatively mild one, still killed off a lot of specimen agaves and prickly pears and even cut some mighty oaks down to size.

I’m finding that the area’s status as an extension of the country’s central prairies may be the key to what will survive and grow here long term. When anything will grow, that is. I’m tending to my little wildflower meadow out back, to see if I can’t reintroduce something a little more self-sustaining than those long cultivated but seldom successful hard turf lawns that were popular in our area and surrounded our house when we bought it. Even better than the wildflowers, I’m finding, will be the ‘amber waves of grain’ I seeded in  among the wildflowers, the native prairie grasses.

Prairie grasses have some of the deepest, toughest and most tenacious root systems of any type of plants, and along with the leaves that sway in every breeze, often creating symphonies of susurration, they go to seed in many attractive ways. So I really am enjoying ‘sowing my wild oats.’ And Little Bluestem, Fountain Grass, Weeping Lovegrass, and many more. My backyard creatures will enjoy them, and their varicolored, many-textured attractions will beat any struggling, forced lawn that ever tried to eke out a living where its native cousins once roamed free.

Get Your Mower out of My Driveway


Hang up and mow!

There are things you would think you’d never have to explain to others, but no. That old term Common Sense seems to have aged poorly, becoming a wistful irony at best, an oxymoron in general practice. Sense, yes; in abundance. Good sense? O, would that it were so!

I’m recollecting the time when our then-regular yard service crew decided it was time for a general pruning in all of their clients’ gardens. Besides the butchery of our precious rhododendrons that made me almost apoplectic when I came home that evening to their skeletal remains–a heartrending sight that on its own would have driven me to buy a cheap push mower and better pruning shears and end the ‘service’ contract–they decided to clear the gate at the north side of the house. Not having noticed, apparently, that I’d sealed that useless gate in favor of the wide open passage on the driveway side of the house, where mowers and wheelbarrows could pass with ease. So they tore out the tender seedling Garry oak by the gate, the one I’d coddled up to nearly five feet tall.

I would have assumed that a longtime yard ‘care’ business would employ people who knew the basics, if not the art, of pruning to do it; the several years of assiduous nursing it took me to save the rhodies were spent in wonder that it was so evidently not obvious to that crew. But yanking up a slow-growing native seedling tree without asking? Really? If I’d had the broom to ride, I’d’ve been skywriting that company’s performance review with the postscript, ‘RIP: Common Sense.’

No, it was not the end of the world, or even (happily) the end of those brave, scrappy rhododendrons. I suppose the only thing that suffered fatally in the event was my trust in that yard company. That, and my mower-free personal time per the end of their contract. But it certainly dealt a glancing blow, as well, to my naïveté about what is and isn’t Common Sense. Guess there’s always time to learn new things. Just keep away from my garden babies in the meantime and nobody gets hurt.


I don’t care if it *is* growing in a crack on the driveway; if it’s in bloom, don’t mess with it.

Old Lady up a Tree

Ha! You thought I was talking about some girlfriend of that guy who lurked in the tree outside Grandma’s window. You may be excused for thinking I’m the equivalent of my own imaginary friend, in fact, but yes indeedy I did climb a tree today. Sometimes it’s good to be a crazy old bat. Here’s why I did it:


The backyard tree was calling my name . . .

I mean, really. If you had this Bradford flowering pear tree glowing at you through the kitchen window, could you have resisted? Granted, there was also a squirrel-decimated finch feeder glaring from its branches, and removing the skeletal remains from sight seemed like rationalization enough, if I needed any, but the pear trees are unsure we actually had a winter, and so both our front and backyard pears are not only bursting into bloom a tad early they are starting to leaf before the blooms are even fully open, and getting just a little ahead of themselves, as I often do too. It’s not especially sunny today, but pretty warm, and who wants a ladder when it feels like springtime? It may be apropos that from up there I had a nice view of the sweet cedar bat house I’d mounted in the adjacent red oak, but I think a tiny bit of tree-climbing may also have cleared a few of the bats from my own belfry, or at least knocked out a cobweb or two.

You might even wonder why I’d be looking out the window all that much when it’s grey and overcast and kind of, well, lackluster in the great and brown-grassy out of doors here in the first place. Here’s why I did that:


The little patio nursery is awakening . . .

You could ignore this? Me, I just have to look every few minutes or so just in case the sprouts are suddenly eight inches taller. It could happen. See those adorable little fine-haired leaflets? The dainty little red stems on what I will assume are the sprouts of beetroot plants?


The charmingly incorrect way I have of throwing everything in together and planting at the same time, same depth, same channel ought to at least entertain me . . .

No one who hangs around this blog for the briefest length of time will mistake me for an orderly, proper, or logical gardener. But I love my mad-scientist fun in yard and garden and the often profligately rewarding things the dirt gives back without regard for my deserving. I was going to say, “my deserts”, but you might easily mistake me in this instance for plotting an entire property full of nothing but cacti, given last year’s Texas drought, my stated intent to move toward a fairly solidly xeriscaped property, better water management, prairie-native plants, succulents, and all of that sort of thing. And I do plan all of that in the long term. But it won’t stop me from, say, planting a few things here and there that mightn’t be strictly ideal for the situation, because I do have that experimental urge and my wildly impractical loves. So yes, I did go ahead and put in a few orange and white tulips in the planters out front, thank you very much. And here’s why:


The yard--front and back--thus far boasts some fantastic trees (and the two little sticks, one of which you can barely discern here centered on the porch, that I intend to raise into trees eventually), but there's not a lot more to commend it . . . yet . . .

I have my ambitions. Not least of them is to get proper drainage around the house perimeter and evict the hopelessly useless and rarely attractive lawn in favor of paths and planting beds and places that would invite the local bees and butterflies and birds and the greenbelt denizens from out back to come and linger, and the eyes and hearts of visitors to find pleasure. All of this, in place of dull hard St. Augustine “grass”; having lived in temperate climates I find I can’t quite call this scratchy variegated-brown stuff by the honorific reserved for something a lot kinder underfoot and a lot more able to thrive on its own than what we’ve got now. I like to believe I can make a bit of a change for the better! It’ll take a lot of resources, but I have hope. Here’s why:


In an earlier time and place I went from a similarly "low maintenance" yard (don't you just adore Realtor Speak!) of mostly unhealthy grass and stumpy evergreen shrubs yard to something nicer in only a couple of years . . .

I think you can get a hint of the Why, no? Granted, that was a west-coast climate very friendly to all manner of plants from just this side of tropical (I did grow a banana tree as an annual out back) to alpine. But I’m optimistic that with the right ingredients, a bit of effort and plenty of imagination, I will be able to transform, if slowly, this place too. I may not achieve the lushness of my temperate garden, but I look forward to something a bit more dramatic and inviting. Here’s why:


The neighborhood wasn't honestly the most upscale, but given the growing climate, I finally decided Parkland wasn't *entirely* a misnomer for it either . . .

This photo was taken less than two years after the whole property had been bulldozed. I dug up and salvaged a number of the rhododendrons and other shrubs, and of course the magnificent Douglas-fir off camera to the right held its ground (after the arborist gave it some tender loving care following its attack by lightning!), but the rest was a big scraped-off dirt pile. So I’ve seen what dirt can do. I’m going to go on believing in what it’ll offer until and unless it proves otherwise. Then you can all say I was just out of my tree.