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.
There’s an American breakfast cereal whose manufacturer advertises it as the Breakfast of Champions, inspiring many a skinny little kid over the decades to eat monstrous quantities of it in hopes of becoming an impressive physical specimen. The slogan also inspired things as diverse as a Kurt Vonnegut novel by that name and a wide range of decidedly non-healthful sounding food and drink combinations that mock the very idea, not least of all the hilariously infamous day-starter of Little Chocolate Donuts ‘advertised’ by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live many years ago.Given how often and how utterly our concept of what constitutes perfect nutrition, health and fitness practices changes over time, it seems incumbent on any of us who care about our own well-being to figure out what suits our own bodies’ needs and wants and not slavishly follow anyone else’s regimen, no matter how magically ideal it purports to be. At the same time, you know me well enough to guess that I think every so-called prescription in the dietary realm—barring allergies or other potentially life-threatening pains—deserves to be broken on occasion. At the start of a day seems to me the perfect occasion for such hijinks, particularly if the breaking of the fast leads to mood-enhancement and a general tendency toward having a sunnier day. There were excellent reasons for the invention of Bloody Marys and Bellinis and Mimosas. Break out the champers for breakfast!
Or, if you feel it necessary to legitimize your breakfast playtime further than you can by acknowledging the fruit and vegetable content of the aforementioned drinks (not least of all, the venerable fermented grape), I’m sure you’re as able as I am to find the good in any dish that cries out to you at the break of day. Little Chocolate Donuts? Why, not only do they contain the marvelous seed of the Theobroma cacao, and if you can’t argue for the food of the gods for breakfast, then I think you need more help than a mere menu tweak can give you, but they also contain sugar, a sure source of [however short-lived] energy. If you take things a step further, choosing a raised donut, you can argue that the live culture of yeast that begins raising its inflatable goodness to a frying-ready state is also bound to be fine feed for your inner biome and all its happy bacterial citizens.
Cake? Lest we forget, it very often has the proteins and vitamins of eggs, enriched flours, perhaps some buttermilk for further culture. Why restrict it to after-dinner eating, when we have less of the day in which to burn off its calories and possibly, less appreciation for its magnificence when we’re already full from the main meal? Throw in some nuts or dried fruits, some coconut meat, some cinnamon (who knows how true are the speculations on cinnamon’s superfood status)—and you could practically be breakfasting on medicine and having spa treatment before you even leave the house in the morning. There are plenty of people who have busily experimented their way to cakes and quick breads and donuts and all sorts of treats hiding, in their deceptively yummy midst, many clandestine vegetable and other supplemental ingredients to make them Better for You. That’s swell, really it is. But you know, being contented and happy is good for you, too.
So I’m going to keep eating chocolate at any and all hours of the day and night, cake with and without secret good-for-me ingredients, raised donuts and cake donuts, sugary cold cereals, popsicles, custards, ice cream, smoothies disguised as Protein Shakes, and any pretend-breakfast cocktails I can get my hands on whenever I feel the need. Whatever gets us through the day, no?
Spring has fully returned to north Texas. That means repeated visitations from wind and tornado warnings, thunderstorms that lead to flash floods, and threats of baseball sized hail. More often, though, it means warm temperatures and plants seeming to grow 50% taller in a day. And it brings on bud, leaf and bloom with a flourish that reminds me how showy and productive a Texas garden can be at its—however brief—peak.
Will you think me impertinent if I show you my bloomers?
A Saturday outing is splashed with roadside waves of Showy Primrose, Paintbrush and Bluebonnets, and the trees are bursting with a dense, cheering liveliness that belies the likelihood of a relatively short span of such intense lushness.
Our own garden is reawakening, sending up promises left and right of everything from capsicum and tomato, parsley and kale to the same primrose standard-bearers ushering in roses, Salvia and Echinacea. The saplings garnered of the city’s largesse in the annual tree giveaway—redbud, Mexican Plum and Texas Ash, to date—are awakening as well. Though the odd temperature fluctuations and ice storms this winter hindered their bloom, they are leafing out in style. And as much as I’ve been known to vilify and slander all of squirrel-dom as thieving rats, I will grant them all manner of amnesty for their one generous act of planting acorns across our property and providing a welcome lagniappe of oak seedlings in my planters for the increase of our little backyard grove.
I’m up to my irises in spring bloom…
Can you blame me for being dazzled?
For shorter-term flair, it would be hard to argue with iris as my chief fancy at this time of year. Always a favorite flower for both my partner and me, it was the centerpiece of our wedding design, courtesy of Mom’s garden, and an indulgent purchase last fall in the form of a self-gifted bunch of fans for the garden here. Along with the classic lavender bearded and highly perfumed variety given us by a dear friend, the newcomers are flourishing in their bed in the front corner of our lot, and I am wholly enamored of their flashy, curling flounces and the radiant tendrils of their beards. The graphic drama sustained by their swordlike leaves after the flowers pass is a pleasing bonus of irises’ appeal, but the magnificence of a bed in full bloom will always be one of my most beloved signs that this season of nature’s great exuberance is in full swing, a grand hurrah in floral form.
Autumn, that is. I’m kind of a sucker for all seasonal changes, but there’s something a little romantic in the sweet melancholy of seasonal natural decay and the nostalgia brought on by the beginning of each school year and cultural season that catches at my heart every year anew. Even here in the Texan climate, where autumn is likely, as this year, to arrive no sooner than winter is appearing farther north, once the Fall comes it’s a welcome joy.
I love the bold colors of the wild grasses and the few leaves that turn to flame before falling off the branches, and the flocking birds pausing to fill a whole grove of trees with raucous whistles and laughing chatter on their way south. I adore the loamy scent of the finally cold air tinged with wood smoke from nearby chimneys, and the perfumed indoors redolent of clove and cinnamon. I am enamored of the grey spray that airbrushes the sky on a frosty morning and the crunch of dry stems and seeds underfoot during an afternoon’s ramble. And I feel the sting of pure joy in me whenever I look up at the blazing blue of the bright autumnal sky stretching brilliantly in the spaces between the craggy oak and the spiny acacia and the hedge-apple festooned bois d’arc branches as they reach up to draw back those cerulean velvet curtains and reveal that winter’s just ahead.
Call me sentimental, but maybe it’s precisely this sense of brevity that makes the autumn seem so desirably rare and refined to me. Carpe diem, I think, for only in the very moment can I hope to revel in such ephemerally earthy happiness. Still, while the moment may be infinitesimal, the falling for Fall appears to be endless, and repeatable, for as long as I live.
I knew we’d hit the neighbor jackpot yet again. We have a history chock-full of fine neighbors between us, my husband and I, of that sort who are not only great to chat with at the mailbox but offer help and led tools when they see projects underway, share their mystical gardening secrets, and advise on who’s the best resource for automotive care, where there’s still an independent pharmacy in town, or what the local ordinances are on right-of-way maintenance.
But we all know that the best neighbors of all have not only generosity in their hearts but also food in their hands when they show up at the door. Rhonda was known to trade her fresh-picked raspberries for our over-abundant plums. David–actually the manager at our then apartments–went door to door delivering home-grown green beans, tomatoes and zucchini that he and his wife grew in the ‘bonus’ plot on the complex’s property. Peter rang the doorbell at our place in Tyee bearing bending boards of fantastic barbecued meats and salmon and vegetables.
Add to this that we had not only other great neighbors but also heroic postal carriers, pest treatment and HVAC specialists, and remodeling contractors who have become admired friends, and you know that our standard for being spoiled is very high.
So when we moved to our current home, perhaps it was only par for the course that our new next door neighbors would arrive with welcoming smiles–and food. But what food! We didn’t have to lift a finger for anything other than unpacking and furniture-dragging for at least three days after arriving in this house because we were handed an enormous platter laden with an assortment of deliciously varied homemade salads, another piled with home-baked breads and rolls and biscuits, a plate of tender, moist cream cake, and a gallon pitcher of sweet tea. If it hadn’t been love at first sight, it would surely have to have been at first bite.
I'm a lucky chick, having such sweet neighbors!
The flow of gustatory glories has continued unabated (and ably washed down with Mr. Neighbor’s lovely wine-selecting and punch-making skills as well as his fine Scotch collection) from that day forward. You will have no trouble believing and understanding when I say that we are devastated that these neighbors have retired and have the temerity to plan to move back to home territory in another state. Who will phone us in Canada when our sprinkler system fails during a hot spell, to tell us that they’ve already hired the company that installed it to do repairs before we come home? Who will deliver our entire stash of newspapers they collected over our out-of-town trip, updating us on the rest of the neighborhood or sharing delightful stories of their own adventures? And who will show up at random, numerous and very welcome times bearing, say, cake or cookies or pie, or a handmade bread cornucopia with a massive vegetable-and-floral display in it at Thanksgiving, a gorgeously crafted Bûche de Noël at Christmas, a sprightly spring assortment of cookies and cupcakes and jellies at Eastertime?
The answer, as you well know, is that it is our turn to become those neighbors, to show up unannounced with that very special something-extra whenever we can, to lend tools and perhaps the hand to use them, and to spread the joy of hospitality whenever and wherever we can. The torch–or the torchon de cuisine–has been passed. I hope I’m up to the task!I’ll probably start with something supremely simple like the nut-and-seed crackers that have no real recipe and change every time I make them. They make a handy vehicle for dips, salsas and salads when I want a quick bite of lunch or a not too terribly naughty snack. This time they were thus:
8 cups of finely chopped mixed nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamias, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds) tossed together with about a cup of grated extra sharp cheddar cheese plus coarsely ground salt and black pepper and good chile powder to taste, all mixed with just enough water to clump together into ‘dough’ and rolled or patted onto a non-stick cookie sheet (I use a silicone lining sheet in the pan so I can be extra lazy on the cleanup), and then baked at 325-350 degrees F (depending on your oven) until golden brown. I let these ones cool in one big slab and then just broke them into uneven pieces about the size for carrying, say, some bacon and cheddar cheese dip or guacamole or seasoned labne or some tuna salad. Tuna Salad, around here, is nothing more than a good quality tinned tuna (one of the brands that cooks its filet directly in the can and adds nothing other than a little salt; I like High Seas and Tuna Guys and can order it online from both, but there are other excellent sustainable-fisheries purveyors as well) seasoned with ground pepper, dried or fresh dill, smoked paprika, yellow ‘ballpark’ style mustard and sometimes chopped capers, and bound with good mayonnaise until slightly creamier than just glued together (spreads better that way).
This combination may not exactly constitute sweets for neighborly delivery, but then we know that the sweetness derives just as much from not needing to fix any food oneself, if only for a brief moment. Or for days on end, if you happen to get one of our neighbor’s fabled deliveries!
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.