Monday, December 28, 2009

A really good reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Of the many food-related things to love about December (constant stream of desserts in the office breakroom, having to “use up” leftover eggnog as a coffee creamer) none can compare with the onset of grapefruit season. Texans take this treasure for granted since we enjoy low prices (3/$1 sometimes!) due to our proximity to the Valley. I have met many a Northerner who professes to hate grapefruit, having only ever tasted the sour pale yellow cousin of our ruby reds.

We have the inspirational work of horticulturists to thank for this treasure. While you and I are plying our serrated spoons in pursuit of the juice, growers are busy testing budwoods and exotic rootstocks (Cleopatra mandarin, Swingle citrumelo) in hopes of creating better fruit with greater disease resistance (citrus tristeza virus, while having a romantic name, is not good).
Of the 34,000 acres under citrus cultivation in the Texas Valley, 72 percent are grapefruit groves. Frankly, I believe it should be 100 percent. We can get oranges from Florida. From now until March, if you see a middled-aged woman staggering away from the HEB with what appears to be sacks and sacks of softballs, that’ll be me getting my Rio Star fix. I recommend only buying the small variety. Look for fruit that is “heavy in the hand” and skin that is shiny or almost oily for maximum sweetness and juiciosity.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Portraits: Shrimps and Pansies

Surely there was never a plant so aptly named. I have waited two years for Justicia brandegeana to flower and for some reason only during the last month has it finally got up a head of steam. So assuming that the freeze will kill it off, I spent the last warm afternoon attempting to paint this complicated bloom. This particular variety even has whiskers like a shrimp.

I have several terracotta wall pots from my mother's garden that get filled with seasonal color. When I'm at my kitchen sink I see these pansies and think of her. She loved pansies and named one of her cats after this flower. I love these purple faces with their yellow dot.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas Thoughts

“It is only to the gardener that time is a friend, giving each year more than he steals.”
Beverley Nichols, Merry Hall

Just finished this famed garden memoir by Beverley Nichols, which falls on many people’s lists of favorite garden books of all time. This Zelig-like writer flitted in and out of politics, celebrity, and journalism during pre/postwar Great Britain, and somehow found time and money to garden like a crazed Johnny Appleseed in series of homes in the English countryside. Merry Hall is an account of the years he lived in a run-down Georgian manse surrounded by five acres where he torched unwanted shrubs, felled mature trees he deemed ugly—and then replanted forests of trees, lilies, roses, and more trees. He apparently did no work himself, preferring to direct gangs of workers and his fulltime gardener, a man of almost mythical horticultural skills named Oldfield. To read the book is to take an amiable meander through the garden with this interesting man, stopping for a moment in the greenhouse, witnessing hilarious drop-ins by eccentric neighbors and the antics of his two cats, and listening to Nichols natter on about his love for lilies. There’s a terrible poignancy about the whole book as well, embodying as it does a world now vanished, where infallible gardeners, faithful valets, and unimaginable real estate economies existed.

Do NOT turn your back on that weeping willow!

Fascinating story by the always-readable NYT science writer Natalie Angier on the consciousness of plants yesterday. As an unrecalcitrant meat-eater who can't understand this reductio ad absurdism of what to eat and not eat (how about air? can we eat air?), it just confirms my own suspicions that plants can and do scream when under attack by Woman-With-Shears or the hungry caterpillar. Some of the aggressive actions taken by plants as reported in this story are downright spooky. If the ficus I'm currently training as a topiary ever gets it phototropic/cellular shit together, I may be in for trouble.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Sod Site for Sore Eyes

The before and after pictures of the great lawn in Zilker Park after this weekend’s ACL Festival here. The folks at Bermuda Tifway 419, the grass that was relentlessly flogged in on-air mentions leading up to and during the ACL Festival probably won’t be including this in their follow-up PR. Let’s hope the turf’s advertised “quick recovery from injury” is true.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Top Ten Reasons I Garden in Austin

10. It gives me carte blanche to use lower back pain as an excuse not to go on the charity Fun Run that ties up traffic in the center of town for hours and that people invite me to every weekend.

9. I can construct to-scale dragons, unicorns, and gryphons out of the thousands of little plastic I.D. sticks that come in bedding plants and sell them for huge profits at the Dungeons and Dragons Swapper’s Saturday at my local comic book shop.

8. A good poison ivy rash obscures the aging-dowager liver spots on my hands.

7. It makes pretty clear to my neighbor that I do not share his reverence for late-90s gangsta rap and there will be no need for that mix CD he’s always talking about leaving on my doorstep.

6. I heard a rumor from an old North Austin hippie that repeated exposure to massive doses of fire ant toxin bestows immunity to H1N1, AIDS, Alzheimers, annoying acid reflux, and being abducted by aliens.

5. Dirt never has anything but a kind word to say about everything and everyone.

4. An anagram for Austin Gardener is A Grandeur Set In.

3. Double digging in 105 degree heat quickly rids you of that pesky 10 lbs. of unwanted water weight and/or last night’s alcoholic bloat.

2. I love seeing the miraculous circle of life, from seed to tiny sapling to dried up, shriveled, and dead in the 105 degree sun.

And the Number One reason I garden in Austin is:


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Yes, indeedy.

No need to go into details. Melissa at Xanthan has the deets if you care to explore the minutiae of our aberrant heat phenom.

But something weird always takes hold of me about this time in summer. A sort of crazed defiance. I know that October will come and it will be a gift. The heat will break and we will be in the midst of a beautiful world. I look forward to that, knowing that there will be surprises. There are always surprise in nature; something that has heretofore gone unremarked will suddenly stake its claim on the landscape. I remember one year, vitex abruptly turned up everywhere in purple and became the shrub of the moment. Or a row of previously overlooked grasses is overnight gripped with halo of pink mist in the sunset.

Meantime, here at Aurora, the big success stories in this summer have been the grays. All things gray seem to be stalwart performers in this heat: sage, germanders, powis artemisia, cottoneaster, and lavenders all are hanging in there valiantly in my heavy clay soil. And they are happy companions to the desert reliables—blue-gray agaves, yuccas, and prickly pear.

One other plant of note: the Pindo palm. If you have any desire for a palm and you're on clay, plant this. It's abso fab and growing like a mofo. Takes what little water I give it and appears to be quite content.

Monday, July 20, 2009

De Nada Triangle

That little gray spot in the middle of Texas would be Travis County.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I Smell Dead Things

In my yard. The wafting is coming from here and there, presumably from small critters or birds. This heat is the killing kind. This is the hottest July in recorded history. Cool front this weekend will bring temps of 98. I was so worried about Brugmansia Charles Grimaldi this winter; but he is more threatened by summer heat. He looks like the character crawling across the cartoon desert. No amount of water can save him.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer Delights for Your Edification

Rosa Caliente Strangulata

Loquatus Burnus Crispis

Agapanthus Scorchiana

Crinum Tostadita

Rosa "Hot Mess"

Monday, July 6, 2009

All hail the lowly Sunflower of the Culvert

I didn’t plant it. Presumably it’s courtesy of some birdshit, because I've actually planted seed heads in the yard that failed to germinate. It’s growing in the driveway in 4 inches of gravel on top of 30 years of compacted substrate. I must carefully maneuver around it, which I consider a privilege given the fact that it brightens my every day with its relentless cheer. I've never watered it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Growing outside her door
Soon they’re gonna be in bloom up in Annandale
I can’t stand her
Doing what she did before
Living like a gypsy queen in a fairy tale

My Old School

Steely Dan

Well, at my back door, the oleander has yet to bloom. It’s only a foot tall, propagated 2 years ago from a cutting taken near my house. On my way to San Antonio yesterday, I saw that despite the disease that ravaged so many oleanders over the past few years, there are still lots of O’s on the highway that have endured, robust and blooming. This time of year, the crepe myrtles and oleanders really deserve our respect.

In my garden now, the invincible soldiers include the indefatigable crossvine, the deep-green and visually cooling liriopes, dwarf palmetto, upright rosemary, cenizo, powis artemisia, and all the blue-green agaves, yucca, and cacti. Not a long list, and short on flowers. If I could tell the the iceberg roses to not bother blooming, I would. They continue to valiantly produce buds that open into strangled and stunted things that can hardly be called flowers.
The worst thing about the heat is that I tend to get cabin fever and commit gardening atrocities. This morning I stepped out just to get the paper and ended up doing two hours of crazed labor. One of which was TRANSPLANTING. I have a long sad history of transplanting things during intense summer heat. To make matters worse (because it only encourages me), quite a few of these crimes have resulted in success. Today I dug up chunks of palm grass from the backyard and put them in the front bed and moved a rooted bunch of Port St. Creeper to the back fence wall. Fortunately by that time, it was around 10:30 and I had the sense to withdraw back into my air-conditioned cave before heat prostration ensued.
Palm grass, an invasive pest in Asia, goes mano a mano with Austin clay.

The variegated ginger is blooming a lot, but you have to get close to see the orchid-like flower.

The Pindo palm loves the heat and is throwing off new fronds happily. It gets fed frequently and is mulched heavily with leaf rot. At right are fencerow of crinums that have yet to bloom at this house.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Horse of A Disparaged Color

Poor horseherb (Calyptocarpus vialis). It's gotten bad rap. Some consider it an invasive pest. You have seen it often, one of those weeds that, if you live in Austin, is ever present on the periphery, popping up in St. Augustine lawns or clinging to the driveway, an afterthought, like the variety of moss rose (portulaca) that grows out of the cracks in the sidewalk pavement. Yet its miniaturized charm is hard to resist: spritely green foliage dotted with even tinier yellow daisies—that bloom throughout the spring and summer. But it has a role as a viable groundcover plant. It is growing here and there all over my plot, and today I dug up bunches and transplanted them to the front yard which is currently a dirt patch. The plan is to convert much of the front "lawn" to horseherb cover. It can be mowed; takes foot traffic, and tolerates poor soil, drought, and variable light conditions. What's not to like? Since it will be contained between a sidewalk and the driveway, I'm not concerned about its robust spreading by runner. Horseherb's other name is "Straggler Daisy." Clearly this plant needs a PR firm to handle its image and conduct a relaunch under a new and more positive name.
Daisy Carpet?
Little Miss Sunshine?
Yellow Star of Texas?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Dig Dirt? This is your job.

Garden-ville is looking for a “fearless” woman in Austin, to call on landscapers and soil yards. The position worth 50 - 65K plus, includes a car allowance and all health benefits, matching 401K etc.

Chuck Butler

Sales and Marketing Manager

Garden-Ville / Texas Organic Products

P 210-483-1933

C 210-710-4169

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Cottage Cheese

Does it get any sappier than the twining vine on the front porch? No, it doesn't. I have achieved my holy-grail gardening esthetic of the Little Cottage down the Lane. It struck me recently that this star jasmine is in EXACTLY the same spot as the star jasmine on my mother's house: front left corner. Possibly creepy or just that it happened to be the best spot.
Poor Aurora Primavera has been sadly neglected lately, blog and garden taking backseat to forced march wedding invitation production and mailing. But a MOB's gotta do, what a MOB's gotta do. Imagine my surprise when I looked up from my writer's cramp and saw that the iceberg roses had mounted their own campaign of blizzard white-out in the front garden. Apparently the combo of mild temps and fleeting rainfall is just their cuppa tea.

The front garden is finally looking remotely presentable just at that moment in time when all of the grass in the front yard has up and left the building. I go out and stare at the bare earth for long periods of time. The neighbors have probably concluded that the strange gardening lady is losing it or into the wine again. But really I'm just puzzling over whether to bother replacing it at all or do Something Completely Different. Today I saw a rose called Peach Drift, apparently some new small groundcover rose. I'm thinking I might shrink my already tiny yard to nothingness by planting deeper and deeper beds of this groundcover rose. Thoughts?

While I had planned to dig up and pot the Pink Indigo due to its water-hog fraities, it got the jump on me and roared into life and bloom and now I can't bear to move it. It has also started spreading, sending suckers to all compass points (this is its second spring in my yard). But since it's in a huge whole in my side yard this growth pattern suits my needs. But if you are concerned about spreading: DO NOT PLANT THIS SHRUB. It's definitely right up there with Port St. John Creeper for aggressive growth.

The now ubiquitous Red Knockout rose makes a nice jolt of color at the end of the backyard. The big black tub was my compost bin but either an acorn or a butternut squash seeded itself and is happily growing so I dragged it out to the sun. Maybe I'll get some produce.

I'm anxiously awaiting the bloom of this agapanthus, a division given to me by my wonderful neighbor Joe. It's the blue-violet color. It's been in this pot for a year and half with no action thus far, so this is big doin's!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Days of Heaven

Wow. In Austin, these have been possibly the two most beautiful days on Planet Earth. Here's an image of crossvine (Bignonia capreolata Dragon Lady). It's a two-tone version of the more common orange—I’m never sure if I like it...
I've been traveling to San Antonio lately and stop in at a wonderful nursery there on Blanco Road that has a great edit of plants and much cheaper prices than Austin. I got a 10-gal pot of Golden Bamboo and a flat of something called Wildfire Verbena that is already my new favorite bedding plant. I put it in the empty holes in my front garden, still limping along due to drought. This verbena has huge blossom heads and is a psychedelic purple. LOVE.
For all garden-travelers check out this link of Great Gardens Around the World. Austin Garden Bloggers, let's make one of these our next field trip!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Leaf ’Em Laughing

This pile cost me $75. That was what I paid to have someone blow all the accumulated leaves from last spring and fall’s historic oak drop (following on the crazy wet summer of ’07 which now seems a dream) into my back-of-the-shed dump.

And now of course, it’s starting all over again. I swept this corner yesterday and this morning a new pile has accumulated. Live oaks. Yes, indeedy.

Doing my part to stimulate the economy, I bought three dripper hoses to deploy in the rose beds. I love dripper hoses; they function well and seem to last forever.

This pretty little verbena, an annual variety, survived the winter and is blooming.

Brug. Charles Grimaldi has emerged unscathed from his winter slumbers. He has a new companion, St. Francis. Do they not make a fine couple?

The loquat topiaries are doing well and if I can just keep...

...him and his brethren from gnawing the bejeezus out of them, all will be well. The loquats, in case you’re wondering, are about 5 years old. They self-sowed from fruit dropped by a tree at my old house. Sledd’s has loquat topiaries that are not as big and not as well shaped for $150. Yowza.

No pictures ever do justice to the Rainbow Knockouts, which honestly, are on many days, the only reason I get out of bed. They bloomed throughout the winter, and were actually more true to their real coral and yellow colors.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Let Me Just Rain on Your Parade

Four Views of the Mopac Bridge in Winter


Okay, if, like me, you’ve been swooning over the recent pitty-pat of raindrops like a 14-year old with a crush, prepare to come down hard. There was less than a half an inch in my rain gauge--how about you?

Doesn’t matter, because it is in no way enough.
For Austin-Camp Mabry, rainfall of 16.07 inches was the 4th driest year on record dating back to 1856, and was the driest year since 1956. Rainfall was 17.58 inches below normal.
LCRA points out that the current drought began in September 2007 (coincidentally the month before I put in my front garden (cue tiny violins).

Now that I’ve discovered that LCRA’s chief meteorologist,Bob Rose has a blog I shall be haunting it daily hoping to read of some sign that La Nina has decided to pick up her tattered skirts and get the hell out of town.

Friday, January 23, 2009


In case you missed it in the Spaceman, the news ain't good.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Wabi Sabi, Maybe Baby

Laguna Gloria in winter

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day has come and gone at Aurora with little to report beyond stunted roses. Austin’s protracted drought dovetails unavoidably with the economic meltdown in fostering doomy regret about the orgiastic spending on plants I’ve undertaken in my two years here at this garden. And even xeriscape plants seem a little like Marie Antoinette’s cake at this point. What, after all, can this environment sustain beyond prickly pear and yucca?

So: new plan. Shabby-genteel ruin. The swept yard of the Mexican cottage. Ramshackle debris of leaf-mold and bare branches. One or two ancient and bearded palms rustling in the apocalyptic wind. Embracing the flawed in the natural world and finding beauty in the tarnished, the tattered, and the burnished with age.

Well, kinda anyway. As soon as I get some clumping bamboo and a Reve d’Or rose, I’ll be set.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Recycling Rant

Is anyone else living in City of Austin as dissappointed as I am about the single-stream recycling monstrosity? This thing must weigh 25lbs EMPTY. I know for a fact my 91-year old neighbor Bertha is not going to be dragging this to the curb anytime soon (despite her impressive exploits with the concrete birdbath). Once the dumpster is full of its every-other-week pile of stuff, who knows what the gross tonnage could be.
On the other hand, it's hard to imagine ever filling this trash bin up, short of hosting a beer bash every week. I have barely approached one-sixth of its capacity since I've had it. Admittedly I'm a single person, but I don't remember filling up the old blue bin very often even when I was running a 4-person household. And the City, in its infinite wisdom, will not provide a smaller single-stream bin--one size must fit all.
Plus, there's something intuitively harebrained about the single-stream concept. I was perfectly content with and capable of separating my paper, glass, and plastic. It seems like this division of labor made perfect sense: it forced us to reckon with our own recycling destinies, consider the volume of our personal output, and take some responsibility for its disposal. With this new process the City has robbed us of a noble feel-good pastime and passed the sorting onto machines or people which must incur costs we taxpayers will have to pay for. How can this be good?
One final carp: the color of the bin. Who chose this toilet-bowl blue? Is there anyone who yearns to see this color EVER? Not found in nature, this blue is a visually demoralizing eyesore. At least the regular trash bins are a neutral gray, beige, or army green. One can hide them discreetly behind a/c units, bushes, garage walls, etc. Not so the screaming blue of the single-stream bin. And being so large, the bin is more of a challenge to store in an out of the way spot and so more likely to be visible in side yards and utility areas. The bins are an unsightly blight in our neighborhoods, yards, and streets.