Chinese Sacred Lily
2007-12-21. Chinese Sacred Lily

December 21st, 2007
Narcissus Chinese Sacred Lily

I couldn’t decide which photo I liked better so I decided to post both of them. Chinese Sacred Lilies are neither from China nor lilies. Rather they are Narcissus tazetta v. orientalis and often forced for winter bloom like their cousins the paperwhites. Several people have written to me that they are associated with the Chinese new year, so that may be where we derive the “Chinese” in its common name. Elsewhere I’ve read that Chinese immigrants brought the bulbs to the US in the 1800s. Before that, however, they travelled along the Silk Road from Spain to China.

The individual flowers are about twice as large as the flowers of paperwhites. And, unlike the musky scent of some paperwhites which many people find offensive, the scent of Chinese Sacred lilies is deliciously citrus-y.

I have not found them to be good subjects for the garden, as Scott Ogden in Garden Bulbs for the South, suggests. Although the foliage comes back every year, they rarely flower in my Austin garden. I suspected that they require temperatures a bit colder than Austin. So last year I dug up a clump and chilled them for 8 weeks before replanting last month. These that are flowering are from the replanted bulbs I chilled. The clumps of unchilled bulbs are up but show no hint of flowers.

Chinese Sacred Lily

Zanthan Gardens meadow
If I want this display in April, now’s the time to be planting. Does it looks wild and natural? Then I’ve succeeded.

December 19th, 2007
Garden Insomnia

After our slight freeze over the weekend, temperatures are back in the mid-70s during the mid-week. Then they’ll plunge to freezing again before Christmas. December in Austin is not the endless succession of balmy days some northerners imagine. It suffers from a multiple personality problem, or should I say a multiple seasonality problem. Autumn. Winter. Spring. December can’t decide what it wants to be.

Far from putting my garden to bed, I feel like I’m up all night with a demanding child. I seem to spend a great deal of time covering plants up for a cold night only to turn around the next day and uncover them as temperatures soar. I never think I have many potted plants until I’m trying to cram them in on my back porch. It’s too dark to leave them there over winter so out they must go again every couple of days. This year I have pond plants to bring in as well. Pulling them out of the cold pond water the afternoon before the forecasted freeze was just as fun as it sounds. I couldn’t have done it without AJM’s help.

Zanthan Gardens potted plants

So when I read about people in four-season climes putting their gardens to bed, I suffer mild envy at the thought of a looking out my window at a seasonal blanket of snow while baking Christmas goodies or sitting in front of the fire poring over catalogs for next year. This grass is always greener, eh? (even when it’s under two feet of snow). Instead, I spent all afternoon yesterday and will spend most of the rest of the week transplanting bluebonnets and larkspur. This is not a complaint! Yesterday was a perfect, gorgeous day: clear, sunny, mild temperatures (mid-70s).

Lupinus texensis Texas bluebonnet
2007-12-18. Bluebonnets pop up in the paths and everywhere I don’t want them. However, they are very easy to transplant when the seedlings are small.

The freeze killed of the Cosmos sulphureus, finally, and spurred me on in cleaning up and planting out the meadow. As usual, transplanting anything means I spend 98 per cent of my time digging out perennial weeds and 2 per cent of my time actually putting in plants. While doing this, I realized a couple of things.

1. I like watching things grow.
This might seem obvious because I’m gardener. I’ve tried to make the distinction before between gardening and having a garden. Some people manage both but I’m definitely in the camp of the former. Most of the year, my garden is not much to look at. I’m a plant person, not a designer or landscaper. I like plants for themselves and I’ll put them wherever I think they’ll grow best disregarding any overall structure to the garden. I prefer my garden to look “natural”, as if it had grown of its own accord. (Maybe that’s why I shy away from garden ornamentation.) I rarely buy very large plants, although after seeing the impact they make in other’s gardens I’m coming around. Gee, I even feel guilty buying packs of winter annuals like violas and pinks. I buy them in bloom and they stay in bloom for months; aren’t they just one step away from plastic flowers?

My feelings about gardening are the antitheses of Dianne Benson’s, described here in her book “Dirt”.

“…my version of gardening most certainly does not include starting anything from an infinitesimal seed…Why should we gardeners feel obligated to the revered seed method of starting everything from scratch to create our pictures? Mine is the fast-lane, quick-gratification approach…”


Transplanting the larkspur makes me deliriously happy. I love witnessing the slow transformation of the meadow over the next five months. That’s what gardening is to me. Cultivation. Transformation. Process. Growth. When I grow something from a seed or a cutting or a division, I feel a true sense of accomplishment.

2. My “meadow” isn’t a meadow.
The first garden I tried to make here was a meadow garden. I romantically envisioned it covered in buffalograss and filled with Texas wildflowers and bulbs. This “natural” space would evolve over the years and once established with self-sowing flowers wouldn’t require much from me. Needless to say, reality is much different. As the shade encroached the meadow space, the buffalograss has died out but not completely. Because bulbs are interplanted, it’s a challenge to spade up the plot and replant it. (Yesterday, I gave in and dug up 24 rainlilies just to get out some nasty horseherb.) Nor can the grass ever be mowed (weeds mostly) because there is almost something growing in it. The entire plot has to be hand weeded.

Consolida ambigua larkspur
2007-12-18. Replanted larkspur. The difficult part to keeping the meadow is tucking plants in between the bulbs and buffalograss while trying to dig out the horseherb and spiderwort.

The real reason that it’s not a meadow is that it is not as self-sown as it looks in the photo at the top of the page. I learned that self-sown flowers come up too thickly and are also crowded with weeds like henbit and goose grass. The easiest way to thin them is to dig them up, toss the weeds, and replant them.

Zanthan Gardens meadow
2007-12-18. The meadow today, a sunny December day with temperatures in the mid-70s. I don’t plant anything along the back chain-link fence because I like the illusion that the garden goes on and on.

Although the flowers are not in bloom, this is one of my favorite times of year in the meadow. It all looks so fresh and tidy and full of promise. The fading summer flowers are cleared away, the leaves raked, the weeds pulled. I like the drifts of buffalograss interspersed with freshly planted (and soon to be mulched) earth. As all-consuming as the garden is, deep down I’m glad I don’t have to put it to bed for the winter.

rose Heritage
Late blooming update! The first bluebonnet of the year. Or is it, as AJM thinks, the last bluebonnet of the year?

December 15th, 2007
GBBD 200712: Dec 2007

Carol at May Dreams Gardens invites us to tell her what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th of each month.

This is the special southern edition for all you who are under snow this weekend. Actually GBBD came just in the nick of time here in Austin. Our high temperatures this week have gone from the 80s to the 40s to the 80s to the 40s, eventually ending the week with two average days in the 60s. Forecast for tonight, however, is our first freeze of the season before we resume highs in the 60s. I’m not too worried. Zanthan Gardens is very close to downtown Austin which forms a heat sink. We also got some rain last night; temperatures fluctuate less sharply when the ground is moist. (Remember, the ground never freezes in Austin). The temperatures might dip to freezing for a few hours but I suspect only the tenderest plants (like the basil) will be in any danger. I’ll bring the potted plants in and cover up the strawberries in any case.

rose Heritage
I had my doubts whether or not the David Austin rose, ‘Heritage’, would last until today. It did! It opened four days ago. ‘Heritage’ has the nasty habit of dropping its petals before the flower has faded. I’m glad this one stayed opened long enough to make it to GBBD. One of the great thing about winter roses in Austin is that the flowers last several days. In the summer they typically open and wilt in the heat in the space of a few hours. All over Austin roses have been in full bloom this month, especially the heirloom rose ‘Mutabalis’.

rose Ducher
Most of the roses have buds on them which might freeze. The rose that’s been in full bloom all month is the lovely white China rose, ‘Ducher’. This is my second instance of this rose. I lost one last year to rose dieback. This one is planted on the opposite side of the the yard against the north fence. In my experience, ‘Ducher’ has always bloomed best in the winter so I moved it against the north fence where it could get plenty of winter sun. ‘Ducher’s’ flowers have a lemony rose scent. I particularly like how twiggy and full the bush is. The new foliage always has a nice red tint to it which makes it pretty even when it’s not blooming.

Helianthus annuus Goldy Honey Bear
Also new for December are two sunflowers which I planted in September to provide some fall color. This yellow one is ‘Goldy Honey Bear’ which is supposed to be 4 to 6 feet tall but which has grown only to a height of 13 inches. Remembering that sunflowers often grow in waste spaces, I planted them to hide some of the garden house construction detritus. Apparently caliche and rock forms a poorer soil than even sunflowers can handle. The entire packet of seeds produced only two flowers which look more like dandelions than sunflowers.

Helianthus annuus Moulin Rouge
I had better success with ‘Moulin Rouge’ which was planted in long-established garden loam.

Making a bid for spring before winter has even started is the first paperwhite. I’ve been watching this bud all week and if it opens more fully in today’s sunlight I will post an update photo this evening.

All the hardy annuals I planted last month–the sweet alyssum, pinks and violas–have established themselves nicely and continue to bloom. The paperwhites have sprouted up among the violas, as have a lot of larkspur seedlings. And the leaves are still falling off the trees. So this bed is a mix of seasons, which is appropriate for December in Austin.

  • Aster ericoides (fading and looking very weedy)
  • Cosmos sulphureus (some very short ones, only a foot tall)
  • Dianthus chinensis
  • Dolichos lablab (a few flowers among the ragged leaves)
  • Duranta erecta (both flowers and berries)
  • Helianthus annuus ‘Goldy Honey Bear’
  • Helianthus annuus ‘Moulin Rouge’
  • Lantana montevidensis
  • Malvaviscus arboreus
  • Lupinus texensis (first flower)
  • Lobularia maritima
  • Podranea ricasoliana (in full bloom all month, although I find the pink a bit jarring in autumn)
  • pepper, jalapeno
  • rose ‘Blush Noisette’ (fading)
  • rose ‘Ducher’ (full bloom)
  • rose ‘Heritage’ (one bloom)
  • rosemary (a few flowers now that the pecan leaves have fallen and it’s in sun again)
  • Rudbeckia fulgida (one flower)
  • Solanum jasminoides
  • Tradescantia pallida/Setcreasia (purple heart)
  • Tradescantia–unknown white
  • Viola cornuta ‘Sorbet Coconut Duet’

Zanthan Gardens fall colors
2007-12-01. The agave americana and the maiden grass reflect late afternoon light in December. As many of the trees have not yet lost their leaves this year, much of the yard is still dark.

December 8th, 2007
December’s Golden Days

This has been an extraordinarily beautiful week in Austin. Like the week before, a cold front blew in at the beginning of the week dropping temperatures almost to freezing. This was the same front that dumped so much snow on the Midwest but here in Austin we were left with some of the most perfect days of the year. After the front blew through, the skies were a brilliant desert blue which provided the perfect backdrop for the sudden coloring of the leaves. Many trees have partially dropped their leaves but the ones that remained finally were tinged with color, not the brilliant colors of northern climes–with burnished golds, deep russets, and glowing ambers. As we near the solstice, the color of sunlight is also golden, infusing the garden with honeyed colors. These are December’s colors in Austin.

Zanthan Gardens fall colors
2007-12-05. ‘Moulin Rouge’ sunflowers have finally opened.

I spent the entire week transplanting seedlings in the meadow garden. The self-sowers pop up everywhere but so thickly that they need thinning. My method is to dig them all up, replant the bed, and move the rest elsewhere. As such, my meadow is not really a meadow but drifts of planted wildflowers. The larkspur always sprouts when the nights are in the 40s and the days in the 70s. I was relieved to see some bluebonnets finally sprouting, too, although they are very late coming up (probably from the lack of rain in September and October).

Zanthan Gardens fall colors
2007-12-05. The Japanese persimmon provides autumn color for southern gardens.

By the end of the week, the winds had shifted to the south, bringing warm moist air up from the Gulf of Mexico. Although the cloud cover makes the scene above look gloomy, it’s warmer than the clear days early in the week. Forecast for today, 83F/28C degrees. Then back to cold and rainy next week.

Dateline: December 1, 2010

Camp Mabry had its first official freeze (32°F) early this morning but frost nipped Zanthan Gardens last week. Although the Gold Rush Currant tomatoes are still alive and opening new flowers, the pecans and cedar elms have given up their leaves for the year. The days are cool and the garden is flooded with light. Quickly, quickly I’m sowing all my annuals. If I do it before leaf-fall, they just get smothered.