When we revisited the lovely Bellevue Botanical Gardens with Mom and Dad Sparks this summer, there were some excellent new elements to enjoy throughout the park. As always, the plantings were bursting with color and perfume and native beauty, but in addition there was a handsome new educational and administrative building complex in the entrance of the place, a splendid new suspension footbridge spanned the ravine in the most thoroughly naturalized section of the gardens, and the progress in that segment toward fuller removal of the invasive plants is more impressive than ever.
One new addition we enjoyed on this visit to the Botanical Gardens was not listed anywhere in the visitors’ pamphlets, as far as I could see, but no less delightful, welcome, natural and local: a pert little wild rabbit who sat nibbling the grass next to the biggest flowerbed in the middle of that pretty afternoon. Never let it be said that there’s nothing new under the sun.
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.
Spring in Texas is a highly variable thing. Like most regions where I’ve lived or visited, north Texas can rightly claim (any day, any part of the year) that if you don’t like the weather, all you have to do is wait five minutes. Ma Nature is that sort of fickle filly. She treats us mighty differently from moment to moment, season to season, and from year to year, too. So while last year, the drought and excessive heat both started early enough that we saw virtually nothing of the vaunted swaths of Lupinus texensis, the state flower, the Texas Bluebonnet, this year’s mildness and largesse of rains has kissed the sullen banks of the highways, the pastures and prairies, and not a few lawns, with a brilliant return, as if our nature-mistress apologized with flowers for running off and abandoning us to sere and lonely brownness all of last season.The extravaganza began with a wild froth of yellow sprayed over nearly everything–it’s a wildflower form of mustard known by many names and perhaps most commonly here as bastard cabbage, that nomenclature derived from the rosette at its base that resembles a false cabbage, but Texans probably embracing the less kindly interpretation of its first name because it has spread so widely as to be an invasive and predatory plant whose tough rosettes block out the bluebonnets‘ rise. While I would hate to see it usurp the blue beauty of the state flower, the wild mustard‘s foam floating over the rolling grasslands is a very pretty herald of the return of spring’s wildflowers.
Following the arrival of the mustard, in quick succession, the verges are airbrushed, in turn, with the purples of several vetch-and-clover-like wildflowers I don’t yet know after moving to this region, then the red hues of Texas Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa), then the sea of bluebonnets, punctuated by handfuls of the pale pink-and-white tissue of Lady Bird Johnson‘s favorites, the Showy Evening Primroses (Oenothera speciosa).When you’re just moseying along, running errands and minding your own business and an explosion of living color appears before your very eyes, it’s not something you just ignore. If you’re me, you ask your husbandly chauffeur to be so kind as to pull over in the empty lot across the street from the biggest mass nearby so you can hop out and ogle, and take a few pictures. See, there’s this little bit of tension in the romance with wildflowers. As easy on the eye as nearly all of them are, they are, ahem, wild. People don’t really like wild very well, a lot of the time: everybody wishes in his or her secret heart to control the world–at least, to believe they can do so. Wildflowers grow and bloom when and where they are wiling and able to do it, and in many cases they’re not all that cooperative when we try to grow them on purpose. Never mind when the weather patterns of the moment aren’t as particularly conducive to their happiness, health and vigor as they could be. When the blossoming wild does decide to make a grand entrance, however, it can create these impressive and celebratory masses of glory right across the most inhospitable-seeming acres of dirt and weediness. Because, after all, wildflowers are weeds; weeds, wildflowers. As witness the aggressive behavior of the deceptively dainty-looking bastard cabbages, sweeping right over the top of the other spring blooms like a vegetable horde of Huns or Visigoths and laying siege until the smaller, weaker plants succumb and yield their ground.Like humans and animals and plants of all kinds, every living thing in fact that populates the earth, wildflowers are essentially invaders and will happily fill in any available space when they’re good and ready to do so. A plague upon the earth! Thankfully, unlike most species, wildflowers, whether annual or perennial, tend to repay their carbon debt rather quickly, subsiding into glorious compost almost as quickly as they arrived on the loam of last year’s dead. So I say, three cheers for the Texas Bluebonnet, which survives drought and depredation, bad seasons and bad gardeners, and gives us a massive dose of grand color virtually for free, then turns around politely and sacrifices its glories for the good of next year’s, or next decade’s, wild display.
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 . . .
The whole idea that a towering sequoia can be sprung from a single, minute seed is preposterous. It’s not that I think this operation is analogous to those amusing party-trick capsules one can buy for kids, where once the pill-like mite is submerged in water, out springs a dinosaur: a sequoia is not masterfully compressed as a whole, living, full-sized tree into its seed to wow us with its razzle-dazzle emergence.
This is a much subtler, more complex, and truly far more astonishing thing, a seed containing all of the raw material and instructions for growing a full-scale, magnificent conifer. It’s more as if a very small package arrived on the front porch, seemingly from IKEA, yet containing every bolt, panel, screw and window, every necessary iota, for making the whole Empire State Building, and when the box was slit open for a peek inside, the building proceeded to assemble itself carefully and perfectly, over a few years, without any intervention from the recipient. Furthermore, if left to its own devices, it will tend to its own growth and maintenance without any aid from humans at all. Repair and beautification and renewal are included in the package with a tree-lifetime guarantee at no extra cost.
This wonder is replicated uncountable times not only in the massive and miraculous evergreen forests but in every growing thing in the earth that emerges at its birth from a seed. And that’s how, despite my impressive impatience and legendary laziness–which in combination would seemingly guarantee my gardening only with the most mature plants I can finagle onto my property and into the soil, I became enamored of gardening from seed. Oh, I still love the instant gratification of transplants and bedding plants and bare-root behemoths and all of that, but to watch this scarcely-believable process of the infinitesimal exploding (in slow motion, mind you) into the impressively complex is, well, intoxicating.
So I have built up a stash of both collected and purchased seeds that I will attempt to nurture into something more substantial over the seasons, and will play the frivolous farmer, the mad scientist of the weed-patch and the proud parent of whatever scrawny or stupendous growing things I can coax out of those jewel cases, their seeds. I will fuss and fume and furrow both the garden and my brow as I try to conjure their beauties out of those weird and fantastical little lock-boxes of seed and I will talk sternly to the reluctant and coo at the flourishing as though I really had anything at all to do with their excellence when in fact I’m just unleashing them to do what comes naturally in the first place. With appropriate respect for their admirable powers, and love for their bloom and fruitfulness, of course. Of course.