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.

If You don’t Like the Weather, Wait a Minute

photoHave you ever seen a pigeon flying backward? I did today. This phenomenal occurrence was not because I spotted a mutant genius helicopter pigeon; that really might be a matter for tales of magic and fantasy, given the modern pigeon’s brain.

It was that windy. The pigeon was making a valiant effort to take off from the edge of a roof and, blown instead straight backward, finally saw the same edge directly under him and came right back in for a landing. What’re you gonna do?

The wind is giving us a good whack here in north Texas today. Two days ago, it was over 80°F/27°C, brilliantly sunny, and calm as a sleeping cat. Tonight, we’re told, we can expect freezing temperatures and should cover all of our tender plants in the garden. A couple of days before our balmy pseudo-summer day, we had a storm pass through. Parts of our town had a little thunder and lightning and a fair amount of rain with a little bit of hail mixed in it, but nothing extravagant by local standards. Our house was in that lucky sector, and so was our car while we drove home in The Weather. Just across town, others were not so fortunate: some had hail the size of golf balls or larger, and tornado-like gusts, and among the downed trees and limbs there were homes where the roofs were destroyed or caved in, cars were damaged or totaled by metal-dimpling all over and glass smashed through, and interiors soaked with the rain and debris thrown in through the broken windows.

We’re torn, in more ways than strictly the physical, around here.

We crave every drop of H2O that we can squeeze out of the sky; even after a relatively mild number of months, our lake levels continue to be well below their norms, some still fully in drought status. It’s not considered a plus if you can drive directly to where your boat is moored, in case anyone wondered. All the same, if the moisture is dumped all at once as though shot through giant firehoses, it doesn’t always stay where it’s needed but instead causes flash floods, undermines foundations, uproots vegetation and breaks down buildings and roads left and right.

Doesn’t matter what you call it—climate change, global warming, a thirty-year cycle, or evil pixies run amok—the weather all around this wonderful, messy planet is more extreme than it had been for much of recent history. The extremes are more extreme, the heat and cold, the wind and dead stillness, the flooding and droughts. Only the inconsistency of the weather seems to be more, well, consistent.

All somewhat amusing, if the worst one experiences is the occasional sighting of a pigeon flying backward. But of course, that’s the least of it. Ask our neighbors who sustained major damage to house, car and property all at once last week. Ask the people—the peoples—displaced by tornado and typhoon, those who have lost home and family to the floods and famines that massacre everyone in their paths throughout whole regions.

I don’t much care about whether we’re partly to blame for the seeming extra intensity of nature’s capriciousness and fury at this point. It’s not all that different, in my mind, from all of the displacements, distortions and destruction in history that we can absolutely attribute to human invasion, conquest, greed, prejudice, ignorance and evil. As horrible as that stuff all, genuinely, is, it is: it exists, already. What matters is what we do now in order not to perpetuate the ills, and better yet, to mitigate them as best we can. We can’t undo history, and we can’t control nature. But we can and should change our attitudes, practices and beliefs (and the governing processes needed to support those societal improvements appropriately) in whatever ways will support a far better world, one where wars, rape, murder, slavery, thievery, violence and all sorts of other horrible human actions are not only universally condemned but undesirable to enact.

And, since we expect that we, and those generations who succeed us, will continue to need to live on this specific planet and its resources, hadn’t we better think up some less selfish and more practical ways of easing the effects of nature just as much as our effects on it? We won’t likely figure out how to stop the wind from blowing with great intensity, floods from filling valleys, hail from pelting like rocks out of the sky, or lightning from searing and exploding whatever it can lay its fiery fingertip on, but if we put our minds to it, maybe we can think up some reasonable ways to protect more people, and care for those who are affected, better.

I didn’t really start out with the intent of rambling on about this stuff, but it’s on my mind. Probably not so different from the pigeon’s reaction when he discovered his original flight plan wasn’t viable. Can I fly backward? I don’t know. But I’ll bet it’s worth trying, if I find myself needing to make an emergency landing. No matter how the wind is blowing.photo