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.
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’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.The 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.People 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.Thing 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.So 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!
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.
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
Yes, the redbuds are arriving, bees and all; I’m not the only one humming with happiness.
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.
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)
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 . . .
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)
Parsley (Petroselinum hortense)
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’)
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!
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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
Even the six inch tall Soapberry tree seedling from last year is swelling into bud . . .
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.
A splash of orange might have been showier, but there's no classic like an elegant white flower . . .
Since rain has been scarce here in the last year, today is a day for being happy to see ‘too much’ of it–it’s pouring out here. Texas style. And what, pray tell, is Texas style? If you haven’t already heard, Texans pride themselves on everything they have or do being big, bigger, biggest, and the weather is no exception: when it’s hot and dry, let’s just git on out there and set all time records, like last year’s string of almost unbroken triple-digit temperatures that exceeded all previous years’ totals. That, of course, is hard to maintain with an accompaniment of rain, so the skies simply curled up into an impenetrable ball like a li’l ol’ armadillo and gave up nary a drop of water until the whole state finally retreated into official drought. Our county was the last to comply, being somewhat feisty and all, but we finally dried up too like last year’s roses.
So today’s pelting, while it won’t miraculously restore the lake levels and revive the dead trees, goes a long way toward soothing shriveled spirits. It will, of course, drown some of the poor little sprouts that fought their way to life after the heat relented, and that’s just the way things go in a land of thorny mesquites and tough hombres. So far we haven’t had to build an ark, and that’s a pretty good tradeoff as these Texas-sized weather happenings go. So today I’ll leave you with a little photo-essay and a link to a bit of YouTube rainy-day fun I posted last year, with a little help from my good friends Joe and Eddie.
The view from the kitchen is decidedly watery today! Hurray!
No worries about whether the little seed tray I prepped yesterday (sitting on the farther chair) will get watered . . .
Maybe I should consider installing a koi pond at the foot of the patio steps . . . "Just Add Fish" . . .
*Now* do you know what I mean by "eavesdropping"? Doesn't really matter if the gutters are clean or not; when it rains around here, they can't keep up with the rivers coming off the roof, so we just have Instant Water Features all 'round the perimeter of the house . . .
. . . and who doesn't like the soothing sound of a lovely waterfall?
From the shelter of the front porch, there are new "waterfront" views of ponds, rivers, small lakes and more cataracts showering off the roof . . .
I suppose the Texas Sage babies I picked up at the nursery yesterday won't drown, at least, because I hadn't set them in the ground yet, so they're still safely raised up in their pots for now . . .
. . . the little coreopsis I'd nursed through the winter indoors, however, is tucked in and now inundated. We'll see how that fares, never mind the rainbow chard sprouts (microcsopic green specks in the upper right of the photo)--I hope they turn out to be aquatic plants!
So this is how it goes here. Dry as a bone for months on end, and then an outpouring so generous that it might well cause new mutations of several plant species into amphibious forms in one fell swoop. I hadn’t realized we were moving to drought-and-monsoon country, but here we are. The slope of our property has definite ideas about where the water should go, and ultimately it does head for the little rivulet in the ravine behind the backyard, but in the meantime, I do think that directing the flow a bit on our actual lot will go a long way toward making the yard happier, if I can do it right. I was considering a moat around the house, since that’s the level spot where the water from up on the road naturally settles before wandering down-slope again, but I’m afraid the alligators I kept in there would eat too many of the neighborhood pets–or the neighbors–and that just wouldn’t be very sociable of me I suppose.
So I suspect a wiser thing might be to terrace a bit, put in some raised beds, and amend the living daylights out of the impermeable, gluey clay earth here, for starters. In the meantime, I’ll just say that it’s a good sump test for the property to tell me where the natural flow patterns and self-designed ponds like to go and see where it all leads. Good thing I got me some nice, tall, silly polka-dotted, ultra-waterproof gumboots. ‘Cause it’s rainin’ like nobody’s bidness out they-ah.