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.

I am a Garden Gnome

Maybe I should buy myself a big tall red conical hat (possibly made of concrete). Because I am not exactly the most useful object, not the most decorative, nor even perhaps the most whimsically amusing, in a garden. But I give it my best from time to time, really I do. And generally, the earth is pretty forgiving and responsive to my fumbling efforts.

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The wildflowers hereabouts have continued to delight, with waves of Showy Evening Primrose bordering the roadsides and ditches, and Vervain spiking up out of the meadows . . .

For once, I paid attention to the promises of today’s rain; it’s not been terribly impressive thus far, but it has rained a teeny bit, so it was good to get things a little better in order out there and ready for some watering the day before the rain arrived. Not that I didn’t water it all thoroughly myself, at the end of my stint, since even if the plants hadn’t been so thirsty after all of my brash ministrations on a toasty afternoon, I needed a bit of rinsing too. Besides turning into a human saltwater fountain and being bespeckled by the colorful bite-marks of a seething mass of varied insect pests, I also collected plenty of bits and bobs of garden detritus in my hair, a nice thorough coating of fresh brown dirt all down the front of my clothes (with special emphasis on my mud-capped knees), and the handsome assortment of plant stains reaching up to my elbows, not to mention the weird black stain my cheap metal watchband makes on my wrist when its gets all slippery with sweat. I considered just turning the garden hose on myself full blast but opted for the slightly less neighbor-frightening method of going indoors and showering, after all. They’d suffered enough if they’d just seen me transforming myself into a living blob of nature-gone-bad while gardening.

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A sweet mockingbird sat surveying the front yard from the mailbox, but dashed off long before I came closer to tuck some sturdy, spiny agaves around its base . . .

Meanwhile, I did enjoy discovering that besides the blizzards of unlovable bugs gone rampaging on the heels of a warm winter, there are the lovely sorts as well: I was almost constantly surrounded by clouds of butterflies that were attracted to the plants I was tending and the nice little drinking fountains I was making with my sprinkler for them. It was as though the flowers woke up and took wing around me. The birds around here are certainly loving the feast of fresh insects, so at least I can tolerate the biting brats if I know that they may soon, in their turn, be Cardinal Chow. Which reminds me, I’ve heard tell that the hummingbirds are back in town, so the feeders should go back up today. How quickly things change in Spring!

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Less than two months of time, and what a difference on the patio and in the yard!

Both the ornamental and the edible is swiftly springing up, and thankfully, many of the latter sort of plants are very much the former too. Along with their other benefits of beauty and entertainment and insect-control, the birds have evidently gotten involved in the garden design work around here, planting a number of sunflowers in serendipitously amusing and even rather unexpectedly apropos spots. I’ll leave them all in place and see what seem to be propitious locations for next year’s crop of sunflowers. Meanwhile, I’ve got lots of other things beginning to come fully into bloom that need deadheading and trimming and fertilizing and watering.

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The dainty blooms on the capiscum plants promise sweet bell peppers to come, and the little wild rose is smiling broadly . . .

The roses have–not too surprisingly, given the kindly weather–been great show-offs already this season. The little old-fashioned straggler that I dug up from its hidden spot by the back fence last fall and tucked into a pail is thriving and throwing off a fair number of its small but deeply velvety dark red blooms. The coral colored rose that I moved to a more visible place in the raised bed by the patio has probably already fired up close to a hundred of its bold blossoms, bringing its own dazzling light to the little ‘courtyard’ enclosed by the house’s wings.

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The detonation of the roses in bright sunlight is impressive even if only from two plants . . . but should I add more, I wonder, when they're all so lovely? Hmmm . . .

That holly tree that I intended to kill, or at least cruelly constrain (someone planted it much too close to the house’s foundation for either’s good) was stripped to its trunk not much more than a year ago but is not only covered with those charmingly soft new leaves that have their pointy edges but no bite yet but is simply a mass of bloom as well, and now that I’ve seen how adored it is by the bees I know I won’t kill the tree but will just keep it as a sort of vertical bonsai, pruning it vigorously but leaving it to stand as a bee haven, a vine post–I loved having my cobalt-blue morning glory glowing from it last summer and have planted that and other colors this year–and a berry farm for birds and winter decor.

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Apparently, the birds and butterflies, not to mention the bees, are going to have a grand dance around the holly tree Maypole this year . . .

The herb-and-vegetable planters are well underway, and there’s not only plenty of borage leaf, despite the marauding munching bugs who try to turn them to lace, for a nice tisane long before they will be tall enough to bloom. The marigolds have opened their brilliant eyes to have a look around, and the carrots and beets are shooting upward (and, I hope, downward). The parsley and other, daintier herbs will have to fight their way up through the jungle a little more slowly, perhaps, but should be strong enough by the time they do that they will outlast the root veg and the annual flowers.

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Packed with, very likely, too much, these planters are still cheerfully chipping in to do their flaming floral part . . .

The peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos and red cabbages are all quite happy and healthy looking right now, and as long as the garden pests can’t get ahead of the birds and me, there may be a nice little bit of produce before too long. In the meantime, it’s sweet just to look at the plants and measure their growth by the day, if not by the hour. One of the perpetual delights of gardening, of course, is the unplanned element that invites itself into the flowerbeds and borders. I was elated to find, among the dozens of baby oak and elm tree sprouts volunteering on the property (and many of which I will transplant, when they’re big enough, to other parts of the yard), a seedling which I quickly identified as a mulberry tree. This, too, will have to relocate eventually, but I thank the bird or squirrel that kindly donated it, as it will also become a great wildlife feeder on the back-forty one day. In the right-hand photo, it is balanced on the left by a seedling soapberry that I’ve been nursing along for just such a purpose, and together they frame a wonderful volunteer that apparently forgot it was supposed to be a tender annual plant, a brilliant orange Gerbera daisy from last year.

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Gifts from the garden to the gardener: a mulberry seedling, a wintered-over annual flower, and lively green growth galore . . .

Along with the Survivor Daisy there are hints of the wildflower seed I threw nearby beginning to assert themselves. The first tiny cosmos has peeped out from the pathway, and there are promising leaves and stems among the sunflowers and cosmos that say we’ll soon enough be seeing nasturtiums, corn (sweet and ornamental), blanketflower and Echinacea and a whole host of other charmers. If you want to know more specifics of what we’re, ahem, expecting, check back to my plant-list post.

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Grandpa Gerber Daisy, meet little Miss Cosmos . . .

I was certainly not confining my attentions to the back yard, and am pleased to say that both the surprises given to me by the garden and the things I’ve done myself and with goodness aforethought out front are also paying off in lovely dividends. The area in front of my beloved’s office window was particularly shabby and is not so easy to suss out, as it’s victimized by bad drainage because of the contours and conditions of our property and also is quite heavily shaded by one of our big beautiful post oaks out there. So if you set these characteristics up in combination with naturally hot and over-dry Texan weather, there are what might charitably be called Conflicts of Interest. I’m experimenting, to say the least. But I’m getting a fair return at the moment and will enjoy it while I can. Among the humorous and pleasant surprises I would count that of having celery in bloom there. Yes, celery. I had a very ancient bottle of culinary celery seed sitting in my kitchen for so long that I was quite sure it had no flavor left at all, but being a thrifty mad scientist, I tossed the contents out in the front flowerbed and behold, a year later I have flowering celery. If it’s biennial like some of its cousins, who knows what next year may bring!

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Outside the office window, hope is arising in its green and tenacious way . . .

Between the front walkway and the porch, the flowerbed is cut into yet another poorly drained (but sunnier) spot and is too narrow for its own good. But I’m getting a number of things, mostly perennial, to pop up there and even had a happy re-visitation from last year’s annual sweet potato vine (the fluorescent-green leafed sort) that will probably now give me yet another year of excellent fill-in wherever I haven’t yet solved the bed’s Issues. I’ve tucked in a few herbs besides the front door rosemary that’s thriving–far more than expected–and am working to have a broad mix of textures and colors and seasonal change-ups that I hope will continue to mature and fill in the naked spots until any non-flowery weeds will just feel unwelcome to even visit.

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Though the tulips are long gone from the planters, there are all sorts of new things coming in and many possibilities yet to sprout . . .

Along with the porch-side plantings there is also another shady stretch, this one less plagued by poor drainage but still overshadowed by one of our big flowering pear trees, so that too is getting an experimental blend of trial-and-error plantings to withstand the vagaries of seemingly opposing growth needs. One of the particular pleasures of yesterday was finding a Bonus Plant tucked into the pot like some sort of vegetal conjoined twin with one of the agaves I laid in yesterday, so now I have this vigorous ‘baby’ to choose a good home for as well. These specific agaves are a variety (Agave parryi) I’ve long admired for their good looks and was thrilled simply to locate, let alone in a size I could afford, but doubly so on learning that they are supposed to be relatively hardy plants–and then on top of all that, I got a big, handsome extra among them. Surely the garden gods were smiling on me yesterday. Or at least the garden gnomes.

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Last year's Beautyberry has burst into full bright green leaf, the New Zealand Flax is spiking up its burgundy spears, and the variegated leaves of their companion flax lily lights up the shade with its fine stripes. And where will bonus baby Spike go to live? Stay tuned . . .