This photo comes from the Sunshine Gardens site. The woman in the center of the picture is not me, but it could be. Surrounded by a plethora of choices, her entire vision consumed with baby plants bristling with ID sticks that scream for her attention, this woman pauses, stunned by indecision and no doubt ruminating on past tomato crop failures and crushed dreams of seasonal color. . . yes, that could be me. And yet, like her, I return to the scene of the crime, hoping that this year, perhaps rain and sun and luck will conspire to work kindly upon my garden efforts. So, fellow gardeners, mark your calendars: Sunshine Community Gardens Spring Plant Sale March 1, 9 - 2pm
Very old Washington palms with shaggy beards and elephant-hide trunks soldier on in many places in the inner city, near campus, and older neighborhoods and evoke Austin's quieter, slower past. The palms on the I-35 west frontage road between 26th and 35th streets at the site of the old Villa Capri hotel just keep on keeping on. The motel is long demolished, a victim of UT's inexorable expansion, but the palms remain a nostalgic footnote to this Ratpack-era building. This poem by a Swedish expat Lars Gustafsson captures the zeitgeist of Austin before it became it became the hipster capital of the universe. Somehow it turns the Villa Capri and Austin humidity and its soil and vegetation into a universal experience of reverence. I never read this poem--or pass by the Villa Capri palms---without remembering how I first felt about Austin when I first moved here. It's good to be reminded of these things.
A small, peaceful place where I could go about my own affairs, without reproaches.
I’ve searched for something like this since the first day of elementary school.
But it wasn’t easy to know that something like it actually existed.
And, truth to tell, every country I live in was a foreign country
How strange, not to say unaccustomed: to stay, to remain.
The first time was a spring night in 1972. The whole world was dark, warm, humid:
incomprehensible from the airplane steps on. Groped for a window. But was already outside.
I checked in at Villa Capri, a motel that’s been gone for a number of years.
Weinstock and Rovinsky picked me up in the thundering, warm rain, both in net undershirts,
and the lightning photographed their still young, energetic faces with black beards.
Strongest were the smells of rotting wood, vegetation, mud, and Southern honeysuckle.
I forgot my raincoat at the motel. Just as Dr. Freud would have liked!
But there was music in the humidity. It came from every street. Ballads and blues and a special kind of
pensive jazz. It resembled nothing else I’d heard. It came from warmer air, smelling of earth.
For a decade now, it’s been my everyday life. The large, serious faces of my students,
grocery bills, and the dog digging overmuch in the rose bed.
For Benjamin, it’s all self-evident. But never really for me.
Never again to need my wool mittens, sleeping like nice kittens in the closet!
A place where everything grows, if you only drop it into the ground, under large trees
that are made happy when the wind starts blowing. Certain things remain forever incomprehensible:
the storm of insect sounds on hot nights, the mysterious warm darkness. A solitary trumpet
blue as night, from a lighted window. Sunrises when the whole world is on fire
and the black herons sit, heavy like Hugin and Munin, in old dead river trees.
Rovinsky doesn’t live here anymore, and Weinstock’s hair and beard are white. The telephone is ringing
and wants to sell me credit cards. Office buildings grow and acquire glass fronts, black as the river.
But the shade under the trees is what it is, and in the river under the bridge giant carp are sleeping,
that will be there forever, and no boy will catch.
Lars Gustafsson (Translated, from the Swedish, by Yvonne L. Sandstroem) Originally printed in The New Yorker, August 24, 1992.
On my way back from dropping Grace off at the airport, I stopped at Callaghan’s to roam the aisles and contemplate their wonderful agriculture and garden supplies. What is about a galvanized metal tub that is so appealing? Galvanized metal looks good new and shiny and even better when it’s old and patina-ed. I don’t need any more tubs, watering cans, or buckets, but I sure love to behold them and you can't beat Callaghan's vast selection. Actually I would like to get a stock tank and create a pond, but that's a little ambitious and I'd need a forklift or backhoe to deploy it in my yard, so scratch that dream. I will definitely be returning with my measurements though as Callaghan’s sells garden hose by the yard and all manner of couplings and end caps. I've got some serious hose issues that need attending to.
I did however buy poppy seeds and planted them Sunday, pessimistically assuming they’ll never come up. And amongst the pink roses, I planted a bunch of those pink and maroon cosmos with the lacy foliage. I have higher hopes for these--cosmos are pretty hard to screw up.
One of my favorite times of the day is around 7am when I go out to pick up the newspaper and kill aphids. To spot these villains requires careful scrutiny at point-blank range, since aphids are tiny and often the same color as the plant. Crushing them between thumb and index finger is easy, fast, and requires no tools or poison. In the pink light of sunrise, the act of closely inspecting buds for aphids and then rending the bugs into chorophyll paste can bestow upon the gardener the calm of meditative practice. Especially if you're still in your pajamas.
More than thirty years ago I bought my first horticulture book, Southwest Gardening, a 1953 classic by Rosalie Doolittle and Harriett Tiedebohl. Their names alone conjure up a lost world of flowered chintz, secateurs, and Rose Society luncheons. You can often find this book at Half-Price Books and it endures as a winsome time capsule of now-out-of-fashion garden sensibilities (basically the authors were trying to reproduce Eastern U.S. gardens in New Mexico).
Nevertheless Rosalie provides much practical advice about many horticultural techniques I still use today. Her skilled line drawings, which include both the merely decorative as well as instructional diagrams, are wonderful--the one pictured here cannot do justice her prolific artistry. Despite using more water than we would today, Rosalie accomplished much working on caliche and in arid windy conditions. I never squish aphids without thinking of Ms. Doolittle's specification of "the most efficient insect eliminator."
Those of us who were in Austin during the early 80s remember it as a time when:
Friends and acquaintances went bankrupt due to the exigencies of crashing real estate prices
The pipes froze and the pittosporums died
Whenever the weatherman/woman starts jabbering about the three Ps, I always groan. It’s a “boy who cried wolf” thing. Terrifying homeowners about false fears, only leads to complacency and potential for real harm. The temperature dipping to 25 overnight and rebounding to 45 during the day is a completely different experience than being BELOW FREEZING FOR 3 DAYS. But the weather folks never say that. In 1982, after a 3-day bout of continuous sub-zero temps, many Austin landscapes were forever transformed. Common foundation planting shrubs, like pittosporum, which at the time were heavily planted all over town in gracious homes in Tarrytown and UT beds, were dead as doornails. People noticed that practically the one thing standing was red-tipped photinia. And now we see photinia ubiquitous in commercial and home settings. This is the pendulum of common taste (as it affects the garden) in full swing. File it under yellow lantana and more recently, esperanza. Gardeners, like farmers, know that there is a huge element of chance in their strivings. Austin gardeners are intimate with drought and brutal heat; but we were caught off guard by the bizarre nonstop summer rains and many rosemarys rotted away. The moral I guess, is plant what you love and hope for the best. Meanwhile, just in case, I brought my embryo topiary loquats inside.
After 10 years gardening on solid rock in Rollingwood, I moved into a 40's cottage in the North Loop area spring 2007. The little postage stamp yard is black clay and no one had ever dug a single flower bed. After visiting Key West a few years ago, I came back inspired by the little frame cottages, white painted railings, and rustling palm leaves. So the plan is: desert tropical cottage garden.