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.

It’s Good to Set a Poor Example

photosI’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.photosThe photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.photosPeople even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.photosThing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.photosSo the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!photos

Will the Blooms Return?

I’m thinking about flowers. [I’m not talking about my cousin’s family, though they’d be a welcome sight in this part of the world as much as any!] Perhaps it’s because, here in Texas, signs of sprouting, budding and even outright blooms are beginning to show all around us: the flowering pear trees are starting to burst like giant batches of popcorn, my infant fringeflower is sporting a deep fuchsia-colored tassel or two, and even the local redbud trees are bravely showing off glimpses of their own hot pinks and purples. It may also be that the influence of a few days spent recently on seasonal cleaning and prep in our yard brings, along with the seasonal sneezing and watering of the old eye-bulbs, the welcome scent of earth and sightings of green specks that seem to increase in size while I watch, reminds me of spring and summers past and favorite blossoms I eagerly await on their return. The recent speedy trip to San Antonio, just enough farther south from us to be a week or two ahead in the race to renew its flora, certainly enhanced my longing for the sight of flowers while it was giving me its own preview. And of course, there’s simply the persistent infatuation with all-things-growing that grips me year-round that might be one of the main instigators of this present hope.

No matter what the cause, my heart is yearning for floral happiness these days.Blog.02-28-2013.1

Too Early to be Called Springtime

Leaning back into the shade

Next to a mirror foxed with age but

Gleaming still with that low glint,

Mercurial, that holds onto its ghosts—those

Pale vapors that have passed

Through the pavilion and its garden greens,

Have dreamed while leaning in

This selfsame shade

Of fading memory and of

Incipient bloom, in this

Just-waking secret garden—

Here I will stay at rest, a shade myself

In the pale green gloaming

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Yes, the redbuds are arriving, bees and all; I’m not the only one humming with happiness.

Be Careful What You Ask Me

Since several people have asked, I’m posting a list today. No, it’s not one of those house-fixing lists I mentioned full of projects. But related, in a way, as it constitutes my contract of To-Do fun with my yard, garden, flower beds, and planter pots. It’s my seed and plant list–what I’ve put in thus far, and some of what I intend to add, the latter being primarily a larger batch of the listed Wildflower Sowing Mix. It’s my own blend, by the way, concocted from reading up on and observing what is native and/or simply adapts well in our part of the landscape. Starred (*) items are known natives or very long established growers here in north Texas, and items marked with two plus signs (++) are ones I’m emphasizing in placement or quantity because they’re particular favorites of mine.

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          For the Front Yard Flower Beds:

Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisirynchium)* ++ I’ve long been attracted to the tiny-orchid flowers of this miniature lovely, and was thrilled to discover the plant is native here. A surprise bonus when moving to a place that has a generally less easy climate than my place of origin in the Pacific Northwest.

Chives, Garlic (Allium tuberosum)

Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)* ++

Garlic (Allium sativum) I don’t cook with a whole lot of garlic since marrying a Supertaster, but since they’re beautiful plants, I figure I’ll get what little garlic I need for cooking and have the garden attraction besides.

Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)

Nasturtium(Tropaeolum ‘Milkmaid’)

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I have to admit I enjoy plants whose babies I can recognize early and so chart their progress a little more accurately. Nasturtiums are a very easy one to spot . . .

Penstemon (Penstemon spp.)*

Showy Evening Primrose (Oenothera speciosa)* ++

Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum)

Spreading Petunia (Petunia x hybrida ‘Purple Wave’)

Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis)* ++ Seriously, how could I not put in any of this classic when I’ve moved to Texas? Not to mention that I’m a sucker for blue flowers. And things that will self-perpetuate once established.

          Herbs (Planted front, back, indoors and out)

Basil, Sweet (Ocimum basilicum)

Borage (Borago Officinalis) ++ A rather magical herb, in my estimation, with its refreshingly cucumber-like flavor and exquisite bright blue flowers.

Chives, Onion (Allium schoenoprasum)

Marigold (Tagetes)

Parsley (Petroselinum hortense)

Curled

Italian Flat-Leaf @ John: I’ll try to have it fully in leaf when you show up here!

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) ++ I have one healthy plant going, and since it seems to thrive in this yard and I love the plant and its culinary qualities, I have a feeling it will get siblings eventually.

          Vegetables (Mostly integrated into the flower beds, for fun)

Beetroot (Beta vulgaris ‘Tall Top Early Wonder’)

Kale (Brassica oleracea ‘Dwarf Blue Curled Vates’)

Carrot (Daucus carota ‘Petite ‘n’ Sweet’)

Corn (Zea mays)

Ornamental, ‘Rainbow’

Sweet, ‘Silver Queen’

Sunflower, (Helianthus annuus)* Mixed Colors +

‘Vanilla Ice’

Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum)

‘Black Krim’

‘Black Sea Man’

‘Cherokee Purple’

Tomatillo Purple

           Vines

Cardinal Climber Vine (Ipomoea sloteri) [Backyard]

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) ‘Tangerine Beauty’ [Backyard]

Morning Glories (Ipomoea)* [Backyard]

‘Crimson Rambler’

‘Heavenly Blue’

Passionflower (Passiflora) [Front Yard] ++

Blue (caerulea) I grew this one in Washington and loved its exotic look.

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It's easy to develop a passion for Passionflowers, they're such showoffs and so prolific when they decide to perform . . .

‘Maypop’ (incarnata)*

Purple (edulis)

Red (alata)

          WILDFLOWER SOWING MIX [Backyard]

African Daisy (Osteospermum)

Annual Phlox (Phlox paniculata)

Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus)

Baby Snapdragon (Linaria maroccana)

Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila muralis)

Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)*

Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)

Blue Flax (Linum lewisii)

California Bluebell (Phacelia campanularia) ++

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)

China Aster (Aster x frikartii)

Chinese Forget-Me-Not (Cynoglossum amabile)

Clasping Coneflower (Rudbeckia amplexicaulis)*

Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)* ++

Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum)*

Cupid’s Dart (Catananche caerulea) ++

Dwarf Cornflower (Echinacea)

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Gloriosa Daisy (Rudbeckia hirta)*

Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)* ++

Lance-Leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)

Larkspur (Delphinium)

Lemon Mint (Melissa officinalis)

Lupine (Lupinus perennis)

Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica) ++

Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnaris)*

Moss Verbena (Verbena tenuisecta)

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum)

None-So-Pretty (Silene armeria)

Plains Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)*

Poppies (Papaver somniferum) ++

‘Drama Queen’

‘Pepperbox’

Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia uvaria)

Red Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon palmeri) ++

Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Salvia Blue Bedder (Salvia farinacea)

Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea)

Shasta Daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum)

Shirley Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Showy Evening Primrose (Oenothera speciosa)* ++

Siberian Wallflower (Cheiranthus allionii)

Sulphur Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus)*

Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis)*

Wild Annual Lupine (Lupinus lepidus)

Wild Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)*

          Live Plants Added

Bicolor Salvia(Salvia sinaloensis)

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Bright blue like that of this Salvia gives such pizzazz to the garden . . .

Blueberry(Vaccinium corymbosum ‘Biloxi’) ++ You may recall that I really dislike eating blueberries–but I know the birds and creatures will like them if I leave them, and I think the plants are beautiful!

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Irresistible little blooms on the blueberry . . .

Clematis (Clematis, var.) I’ve put in several varieties, and the first leaves are beginning to appear, so I think I had better give those little green pretties something to climb up soon or risk their meandering in the underbrush.

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Peering out from under oak leaf-mold and purple tradescantia that's already shown its first bloom of the season, the clematis leaves are beginning to crawl forward . . .

Columbine (Aquilegia ‘Origami Mix’)

Corkscrew Rush (Juncus effusus ‘Spiralis’)

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) The first of our little city give-away adoptees appears to have survived the winter, but won’t yet show its bud growth.

Fig Tree (Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’) I found a sturdy fig tree rooted in a three-gallon pot for four dollars. How could I refuse? Even if it turns out to be only semi-productive (though I’m told they grow well enough here), the leaf will be a nice variant in the yard.

Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) A good shot of early color is always welcome.

Horsetail Reed(Equisetum hyemale) Strangely for a place that verges on drought, the yard here has one or two water-collecting spots! So wet-footed plants should do fine.

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I find it strange that there is a place--ANYWHERE in this north Texas garden--that can stay wet for so long, but it's a handy spot to put water-tolerant plants like the Corkscrew and Horsetail reeds, after all . . .

Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina)

Mexican Plum (Prunus mexicana)

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The Mexican Plum tree just planted this last fall has wasted no time in putting out dainty little white flowers . . .

New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax) Going for a bit of large-scale drama, here. (You can see the NZ flax’s big burgundy swords in front of the wet growing bed above.)

Red Cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata f. rubra)

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When it's on sale, why not use the bedding plant! And I got a half-flat of red cabbage babies, so they went out front for their ornament as well as in hopes of good eating . . .

Soapberry (Sapindus saponaria)

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Even the six inch tall Soapberry tree seedling from last year is swelling into bud . . .

Texas Sage ‘Desperado’ (Leucophyllum frutescens)* ++

Tulips (Tulipa spp.) Of a white unnamed variety; oh, yes, I did succumb. I put just a dozen in my front porch planters. Half of them were soldas orange, but buying a generic handful of bulbs, one gets what one gets, no? And white tulips are beautiful too, so I shan’t complain.

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A splash of orange might have been showier, but there's no classic like an elegant white flower . . .

Variegated Flax Lily (Dianella tasmanica) ‘Variegata’

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. . . and lest you think I'm doing all of this unsupervised, the Watch-Cat does continue making the rounds . . .