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.

Attention to Detail in All Things

digital illustrationI’m far from being the world’s best gardener. I may have the perfect skill set as a lazy dilettante, loving the design process and having a tremendous appreciation for all of the non-laborious joys of a garden, whether it’s well tended or not. A bark-boring beetle or a sculptural skeletonized leaf can be as beautiful as any spectacular, pristine lily or a lilac’s heady bloom. A moss-choked stone path is as glorious as a graceful fountain encircled by perfect tea roses and rosemary. And I have had quite the aversion to trench digging, rock picking and weeding ever since I was old enough to be conscripted by my parents for the purpose.

But I also know that if a garden is to have any hope of continuity and flourishing in flower, it needs occasional attention to such details, at the least, from Nature’s seemingly random hand. The gusts and waterings, composting and tillage performed by her weather and her handyman crew of creatures all do their parts in keeping the landscape in beautiful form. Even better chance of thriving if I do my part, too, having noticed what details might better prosper under my attentions, however slight they might be.

I was reminded of it recently as I watched a family make their valiant attempt at getting a group portrait. Flanked by grandparents, the parents stood holding their two little boys: Dad, in back, held the eight month old and Mom, ahead, wrangled the three-year-old. No one seemed able to get the normally placid toddler in front to hold still for even one quick photo, or to understand why he was so unusually squirmy, until someone finally noticed what I could see better from my side angle: that the baby was cheerily leaning forward at intervals and yanking his big brother’s hair. Detail noticed, problem solved. Had that adorable little scalawag been able to keep up the practice, I have little doubt there would’ve been need, eventually, for an expulsion from that particular little Eden.

I, meanwhile, must try to keep after my own gardens, the real and the metaphorical, and make sure the little buzzing creatures and weeds don’t get too far out of illustration

Change of Venue for a Change of Seasons

I lived most of my life in northern climes. My childhood and many subsequent years spent in the Seattle area naturally color my view of nature and my connections with it, so even though I’ve spent the last four years putting roots down into Texan soil my inner imagery of the season of growth is of sprouts and blooms native to alpine, temperate, rainforest and coastal territory. I appreciate and admire the vast and varied beauties of this wildly different terrain that is my new home, and my heart still resonates joyfully when it comes to those northwest marvels of green and gorgeous living things as well. I don’t think I’ll have to tell you which region inspired these two poems.

The drawings, though, could be a bit more nearly universal. Dandelions, in particular–I can’t think of many places I’ve visited so far that didn’t have a substantial contingent of that sunny little weed blossom. I hardly ever see their smiling faces without thinking of the adorable little enthusiast next door who peered over our fence and, seeing my mother pulling dandelions–and perhaps interpreting this as her enthusiasm for cultivating their charms–piped up to boast enthusiastically (much to her own mother’s chagrin): ‘we’ve got a MILLION of ’em!’ graphite drawingIn Return

Willingly as daffodils stretch out of the earth

At the first invitation of the sun,

So I come from the dark when my winter ends,

Turn my face up to the blessing sky,

And sigh at the promise of the spearing green

Arising by my feet, even if the icicles

Have not yet

Melted wholly away.

pen & ink

Avalanche Lilies

Amid the muffling drifts of downy snow

That draw the pearly winter sky down low

To kiss the earth once more in early spring

Are sparkling spears of palest glimmering

Green newness, first to show upon the white

And break the slope of frosted winter light

Uncurling soon to show the youthful face

Of spring’s renewal in this sleeping place

If still surrounded by the icy pale

Wild woolliness bedecking hill and vale—

The snow, though mighty, cannot fully stanch

The burst of springtime’s sparkling avalanche


Inquisition & Desolation *

digital collage


Her lipstick was of fiery red,

Her mane wild copper, and her nails

Lacquered in scarlet by which pales

The rouge of which the pious said

Was made civilization’s end,

And surely, in her crimson silk

Cut down to there, she and her ilk

Wore carmine on that downward trend

That would someday blood’s red require

As she and they leapt in that fire

In meantime, sanguine all were those,

This ruby dame and all her kin,

And painted red from cloak to skin,

Until the bloom wore off the rose

And in wine-tinged despair, demise,

They fell in desperate gasps for breath,

Plagued by their past like some Red Death

Infected them; to their surprise,

This day their bad blood did require

They leap in that eternal firedigital collage


Way out west of Petaluma,

Where the streetlights cease to go,

Only weeds and broken concrete

And barbed wire in one hard row

Braiding up the roadside grasses

In a knotted wind-strung quirt

To whip out and give ten lashes

To the devils in the dirt

There are houses still beyond here,

Long abandoned, though, and shot

Through with rust and melancholy

And dead dreams long since forgot,

And one tough and stringy lady

Hanging on by fingernails

To a past she can’t remember,

Out here where the flat wind sails

* Today’s post is brought to you by:   Zombies! Now 100% Recycled!

Most Fun ‘Disease’ Award: the Bluebonnet Plague

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.photoThe 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).photoWhen 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.photoLike 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