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.

Back in Business

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It may not look like much yet…

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.

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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.photo montage

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.

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I’m up to my irises in spring bloom…

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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.photo

The Garden Rejoices

photo montageRespite is the thing we all crave at times. Too much of a good thing is still, when all’s said and done, too much. Having spent the majority of my life in climes of plentiful cloud and rain, I was quite pleased to experience the practically perpetual sunshine of north Texas, but learned that with it can come garden-blighting and spirit-dampening heat and even drought, so when it rains, as much as it might make a few things more inconvenient or messy, it can also make my heart glad.

And the way that the leaves plump up, flowers loosen and uncurl their fists and stalks and stems stretch instantly taller toward the sky, it’s also easy to see that the garden rejoices. It’s as though all of nature around me is sighing and relaxing every tensed-up, coiled tight thing with grateful relief.

A moment of quiet in the heart of a rushed day or a busy week is rain for my spirits as well. Whatever the cause of the busyness, however pleasurable the things that do clamor for my attentions, I find that a brief pause to lower the speed of thought, to quiet the relentless insistence of life’s siren calls and cool the heat of its demands–this one small thing–has wonderful power to relieve and renew me, too.

This is how I remember the kindness of the rain in the midst of unyielding heat, the shelter of low clouds that break the relentless glaring sun. And I look for my tiny bits of solace in a meditative mode, feeding my roots and encouraging me to let go, expand, release the tensions I am in and carry on, better able again to bloom and grow.

Way Out Back

The ever-marvelous Celi, she of the sustainably-farmed wonders at The Kitchens Garden, challenged all of us to share what we see from our back porch, patio, stoop, door, window or patch of land, and the images pouring in have been a delight. Each so different, each from some other far-flung locale around the globe–but each seen from the home turf of a person joined together in this fantastic community of blogging and readership that makes the otherwise disparate styles and locations seem we are all next door neighbors. What a superb thing, to shrink the world down to a size that can easily fit into a single embrace!photoSo I give you a glimpse of what I see behind my home, too. Our house is situated on a city lot (about the typical suburban US standard of 50 x 100 feet), but it feels both less like a suburban place and much bigger because it backs on an easement, a small ravine for rain run-off and city/county service access. The ravine’s seldom wet (this is, after all, Texas) or used for services, so it’s mainly a tree-filled wild spot and a refuge for local birds, flora, insects, and an assortment of critters that have at various times included not only squirrels and raccoons but also rabbits, opossums, armadillos, deer, foxes, coyotes and bobcats. There have certainly been, along with the delightful bluejays and cardinals and wrens and chickadees, doves, grackles, hummingbirds and killdeers and all of those sorts of small-to mid-sized birds, plenty of hawks and vultures and, I suspect (since I know others not so far from here who have had visits from them) wild turkeys, though I’ve not seen the latter.photoWhat I have seen recently that is infrequent if not rare, is some very welcome rain pouring down on us here, so I’m showing you slightly uncommon backyard views today. The second picture is taken from our raised patio, but the first is the view as I most commonly see it: through the kitchen window, where I can stand safely out of the lightning’s reach (as on the day shown) and more comfortably in air-conditioned splendor than in the 90-105ºF (32-40ºC) we experience so often here. Believe me when I tell you that the intense green of this scene as shown is rather unusual for this time of year, when we would more often have much more brown and bedraggled plants all around us. But we also have the luxury of a sprinkler system, so if the ravine begins to droop in dry hot weather, we’re generally protected from terrible fire danger and can still be an inviting spot for the local wildlife to take its ease. To that end, and because I generally prefer the beauties of the more native and wild kinds of landscapes to the glories of the manicured, I have my new wildflower swath in place and it’s just beginning to show a variety of the flowers and grasses I’ve planted there; seen to the left of the grey gravel path in the second picture, it stretches from the patio all the way back to the ravine.

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.

I Fall for It Every Time

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.photo

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.photo

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.

Peaceful Shadowland

Fall and Winter have a stealthy benefit that’s often overlooked. They lend themselves, more than the ebullience and exuberance of Spring and Summer, to a sort of calming melancholia, to meditation and contemplative times. In Autumn and wintertime, the chaos of the world can be lessened and untangled without the palisade thrown up by the warmer seasons interfering with the endeavor.photo

In part, it’s simply that we are increasingly encouraged by colder and often less amenable weather to stay indoors. Indoors, where the hearth beckons, where our books lie in wait, where our writing tools stay safe from the tempests outside. Indoors, where it’s easy to keep a cup of tea or coffee or cocoa hot and handy while we spend the hours tending to those tasks of repair and renovation that have lain unnoticed when the longer days of sunlight kept pulling us away. The birds flit south and abandon their choir-lofts around the house and the other creatures begin to line their dens and curl up under porches with greater urgency, leaving the airwaves to the less inviting, darker sounds of passing traffic on wet pavement and wind whistling down the fence lines, sounds that urge us to follow our instincts and the local wildlife to seek shelter and keep quiet while the forbidding cold and darkness of the ‘off seasons’ roar through town.

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But there’s another great appeal to Fall and Winter, another aspect that captures the gentler and more introspective angles of the imagination, and that is the way that these seasons strip away their frills and wash out any fripperies that might distract us from the most basic parts of our existence. It’s the way this time of year seems to contract not just the length of its daylight hours so that we see things dimly, palely and in lengthening shade and shadows, but even the spectrum of visible color, which becomes thin and subdued in the leanness of winter light. The water recedes from the fruits and flowers and stems of summer’s abundance and leaves them slightly parched and leads them to bend and fall. The slightest breeze, now colder, finds us clutching at our lapels and jamming our raw hands as far into pockets as they can go.photo

In this beautiful world, with the color rapidly draining out of memory, the stillness of hiding and hibernation weighing us into lassitudinous introversion, and the brisk chill of frost settling around our ears and shoulders like lead, we can at last let go of the impetus to run and shout and do, if only for the joy of rediscovering what waits in the seasons of shadow. We can see the world in a sort of refined simplicity if we let ourselves. We can take these moments of clean-slate clarity to listen to our innermost selves for a bit and sort out what does and doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of our lives. And we can go to sleep knowing that when the glad excesses of Spring and Summer return we will see them through new and more appreciative eyes and perhaps, yes just maybe, even find that in the midst of all that bloom and warmth and celebration we may long for the stringent joys of Fall and Winter once again.