Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Backyard: Keeping it simple.

Here is the backyard. No beds, nada going on. But I rather like it simple like this. Much shade. In the one sunny spot along the fence in back I've put in a mutabilis rose. This reliable rose grows to the size of a 57 Chevy within a short time and blooms relentlessly throughout our terrible summers with its merry confetti of pink, yellow and rose blossoms. Next to the dark limb of the elm tree on the left, there is a vitex tree, something I've always admired but never had a place for. The corrugated metal shed is a treasure; it's become my garden shed and I love it. My daughter Rachel thinks it may have once been a chicken coop. If you ever saw the movie Cold Comfort Farm, you can understand this shed's fascination: "there's something nasty in the woodshed" comes to mind every time I enter.
In the last picture you can see a light green bush. All through February and March, from the time I first saw this house until I moved in, I could smell a heavenly scent wafting in the backyard. I had never heard of this plant before, and now cannot imagine living without it. Bush honeysuckle or winter honeysuckle. It blooms all winter long, a fairly unobtrusive white flower, but intensely perfumed with an almost rose-like scent. The garden books say the bush is untidy looking but I find it winsome and appropriately old-fashioned and unfussy. Perfect for my easy-does-it backyard. The house has a large and wonderful deck, in some kind of composition material that I at first thought ugly. But everyone pointed out it its durability, and having paid for the installation of a wooden pergola at my Rollingwood house which did not last 9 years, I am warming to the synthetic deck.
This picture makes the yard look much bigger than it is. I've bought an electric lawnmower and it takes me 5 minutes to mow. There is a standing faucet in the yard; another 1940s relic I cherish for its wabi-sabi charm.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Key West Cottage Garden

Several years ago my ex and I went to Key West. It was the fall after that terrible summer when our skies were occluded for three months with smoke from agricultural fires in Central America. We had cancelled our family trip to Port Aransas since it was so depressing to be outside; it felt like the world was coming to an end. Anyway it was my ex's wonderful idea to surprise me with this trip for our anniversary.

Ever since then I had the notion of doing a Key West garden. And now with my new house, this idea seems ideal. What I took away from Key West was: small frame cottages with simple paint colors, lots of white trim, white railings, and gardens that were foliage-intense rather than flower-focussed. Which is totally my cup of tea for front garden--I love greens, grays and year-round evergreens. Once the construction is done next door I will be painting the exterior of the house; the main siding will be a manila folder color and the trim will all be white; the shutters black. Very Key West and all about setting off the dark green of the evergreen tropical foliage plantings.

So here’s the plan:

Palm fronds are the key (no pun intended).
There is nothing that says tropical Key West shanty like rustling palm fronds. But I don’t want or need a palm tree. My tiny front yard already is dwarfed on the south side by a #@!!$% liveoak tree (I know they are majestic, but they belong in a field; their twice-a-year leaf-drop-pollen-spewing-fuzzy-caterpillar-flowering output is a massive annoyance to a residential yard—and what’s with the non-biodegradable leaves? Do they EVER decay? I think not.).

So after researching palms, I have concluded that the best solution is the Dwarf Palmetto, which is a southern U.S. native and can endure some freezing temps as well. Plus it doesn’t get very big; but it also has a reputation for slow growth. Everything’s a trade-off. I looked at the sago palms, but something about them seems almost plastic. Plus after reading Oliver Sacks’ treatise on cycads, I wonder if they aren’t alien beings.

So I have planted a Dwarf Palmetto (sabal minor) on either side of the front windows. You can see in this picture the tiny size of this palm to the right of the window in the sunny patch. Let's hope that their slow growth doesn't spell garden dissappointment for me.
I’m leaving the boxwoods in between them; assuming they come back from my merciless pruning. In March right after I moved in, I put plugs of small liriope (that I brought from R-wood house) along the front and side beds. I love liriope and it can’t be beat as an edging medium; it’s dark green, cold hardy, evergreen, appears lush in the worst conditions, and it even has purple flower spikes.

In between the foundation planting of boxwoods and the liriope is a big whole at the moment. So I’m mulling what would be good here. I want something low and evergreen but with a tropical bent, possibly 2 or 3 dwarf oleanders with some rambling verbena filling in the spaces.

Meanwhile the shade garden in front is doing well. From my Rollingwood house I brought and planted these shade lovers:

Inland sea oats
Physostegia (purple fall bloomer)
Brazilian pavonia (pale pink flower with wine throat)
Turk’s cap

This bed is under a copse of mountain laurel and the tallest pittosporum I've ever seen and unfortunately some rather pervasive poison ivy. Apparently even John Dromgoole endorse Roundup for this scourge.

My Broken Back: Gardening is the Real Labor of Love

One of the things I find very annoying about garden blogs is that you never hear about the actual work.

“we put in the path”
“I moved the desert willow to a sunnier spot”

Okay: are people doing this themselves or hiring others to do it? I would appreciate full disclosure on this matter. So I will make it clear in my blog what I am doing and what I am paying to have done. I have never paid to have landscaping plans. I steal my ideas from looking at other gardens and things I like. I buy retail plants, propagate from my own plants, have been known to rustle now and then (for example snapping off a small prickly pear pad from an abandoned house or taking pods off a seed-setting vine).

Back at the R-wood house, I more than once had a ton of limestone dry stack delivered to my house and deployed the entire batch in low walls around beds. I’m not sure I could do that anymore (I’m 57).

I have had masons build me some walled beds and it was worth every penny.

So this morning when I went out to confront the two boxwoods that need to be removed, I was ready to dig them up myself. But after a few minutes of digging, I realized I would probably need to be hospitalized if I was in fact able to uproot them. So I called my tree guy, a nice man who has cleaned out the ballmoss and deadwood from my oaks and elms for the past 15 years. He is sending over a crew to dig up the boxwoods. Whew.

Tomorrow: Key West Phase commences.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Buxus R Us

I moved into the house you see here in March 2007. After the contract closed I would lie awake at night and plan my first steps: cutting back the leggy boxwoods. A couple of years ago there was an article in the Sunday New York Times magazine about a famous German landscape architect who had taken on a property with a 50 yard path lined with 4 ft. tall boxwoods along that had been completely neglected for years. Rather than cut them back, he had worked with their natural wild forms, sculpting the shapes and bulges. The result was this stunning swath of oceanic emerald waves, almost bizarre or creepy in its rolling masses. While I can't remember the man's name, I've never forgotten those boxwoods.
Nevertheless I immediately cut back the boxwood hedges the day after I moved in. Once they've gotten as leggy as these were, the understory of the plant become bare and the whole hedge looks like it's trembling on house of cards. Which it in fact in can be in the event of a really bad freeze. Anyone who gardened in Austin in the 80s will know what I'm talking about. We had two winters where there were several days where we didn't make it above freezing. Almost every pittosporum in town died. When it was over, the photinias were still standing. Thus the horrid over-planting of this shrub.
Back to the boxwoods. So off they went, lopped to about a foot from the ground. I have inherited boxwoods in every house I have ever lived in Austin. They can be terribly boring and smell weird (Nancy Lancaster, my gardening heroine, said her father thought they smelled like dog pee). There is something suspect to me about a plant that only seems appealing if it is rigidly controlled and shaped. But then they do work well as a simple wall of green in many garden settings, both formal and rambling. My oldest daughter spent a summer at Blandy in Virginia, a state run horticultural research center where they have the world's most complete boxwood garden and it was interesting to see how vast the array of sizes and varieties. So I hope my boxwoods take the rigorous pruning. But if not, asi es la vida.
I've just moved to this house from my previous half-acre in Rollingwood. Giant lot, giant lawn, vast perennial beds, back-breaking work every winter cutting back the woody perennials, never ending policing of the drip-irrigation hoses. Way too much lot for any city-dweller to own or maintain. When they put in the sewer system 5 years ago, the trencher dug up my front yard and I could see with horror the fact that I had at most 5 inches of topsoil sitting on solid limestone. Of course it only confirmed what I already knew and felt every time I stuck a shovel into the ground and heard the dreaded "CLANG!"
So now I've moved a little ways north to plain old black clay, or as Scott Ogden calls it, mbuga. 1940's cottage, miniscule front yard, and completely unadorned back yard. I'm always amazed to find old houses where no one has planted so much as a single rosebush or carved out a tiny bed. But here we have a virgin plot, except for the some very minor nominal landscaping done by the houseflipper's paid guns.
At my last house I kept a garden journal, pasted in pictures and i.d. tags from purchased plants. For this house, I think I'll do both: journal and blog. Next post will outline my Grand Plan.