Yucca aloifoliaYucca aloifolia–prickly as pins. I did not walk away from the battle unscathed.

January 29th, 2008
Dueling with Spanish Bayonets

The sun came out in Austin over the weekend and so did all the gardeners. Wearing a T-shirt again felt wonderful. I decided to be an ant and focus on cutting back the yucca that graces our front fence. Well, “graces” is hyperbole. What it actually does is flop about and slither over the fence while threatening pedestrians with its needle-sharp tips. For this reason, yuccas are illegal in sidewalk plantings in Austin.
Yucca aloifolia
If you are thinking that this yucca doesn’t exactly add to my garden’s street appeal, then all has gone according to plan. I live in a neighborhood that is basically the parking lot for Palmer Auditorium, Auditorium Shores, and the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail. I got tired of cleaning up the dog poop from people who take their dogs for a run around the lake and the cigarette butts and beer cans from tired concert goers hiking back up to their cars. When a friend gave me some Yucca aloifolia (Spanish bayonet), I decided to create a security border.

I planted two plants in the front on Labor Day, 2002. What I hadn’t counted on is how quickly Spanish bayonet grows. It shoots up, becomes top-heavy and then topples over. With all the rain last year, it’s rotting out at ground level. This does not deter the plant at all. It gets on fine without roots because it stores its food supply in its trunk. After it topples, it sends up pups all along the trunk.
Yucca aloifolia
So how does one tackle this mass of needle-sharp bayonets? First, observe the enemy.
Yucca aloifolia
Notice that the top leaves point up. The middle leaves point out. The bottom leaves (often brown but still with deadly tips) point down. You can’t get your hand anywhere near the trunk. In fact, these yucca make fine hideouts for small birds and lizards (one which was very cold and grumpy when I disturbed his sleep today.)

Most importantly, make no sudden moves. Do not lean in to cut a leaf. Move only the hand with your clippers. First, cut off the needle tips at eye level–the ones waiting to poke out your eyes. (A neighbor strolling by me at my labors remarked that he wouldn’t go anywhere near Spanish bayonets without goggles.) Clear a large area of needles. Then start to cut off more of each leaf, getting closer to the trunk. Never move your body or head without first checking for additional needles that may need to be removed before you move closer.
Yucca aloifolia
Once you can reach the trunk with you hand, you can saw through it. Although the yucca stem is fibrous, a small pruning saw can go through it quite quickly as long as you cut perpendicular to the fibers. After the yucca is down, it’s short work to cut off the leaves (which are now pointing up and away from you) from the bottom.
Yucca aloifolia
I cut off all the leaves except for the new ones that are pointing up. What’s left looks like this.
Yucca aloifolia
I’ll cut off most of this stem before I replant.

Although AJM never complains, I imagine that when he sees the dishes and laundry unwashed that he wonders what I do all day. He doesn’t consider time spent in the garden “work” because, he points out, I love gardening. It’s a hobby. It’s a leisure activity. Hmmph!

Well this project was mind-numbing, tedium. Had I not been listening to JapanesePod101, I surely would have gone insane. I worked from 2:30 to 5:30 on Sunday and was back at it again at 9 this morning. I took an hour lunch break at 12:45 and then worked for another three hours. When I was finished there wasn’t much yucca left. All the largest plants had rotted away at the root. I decided just to clean out everything. I even swept the front walk and cut back the wild asters. I saved three plants to replant but cut up most of the rest for recycling (8 bags worth). I trimmed three smaller plants and left them in the front to passalong to another neighbor who walked by. I warned him that they were deadly. By 5:30, I called it quits and came in to watch the news.
Yucca aloifolia

freeze-damaged duranta
2008-01-22. After a hard freeze the duranta is a fountain of forlorn brown leaves and my neighbor’s lantana looks like dry brush.

January 23rd, 2008
Welcome Cold and Dreary

January can be Austin’s bleakest months and 2008 has been a good example of that. We’ve had gray skies and drizzle, temperatures hovering in the 40s. And last weekend downtown got our first solid freeze. Temperatures fell to the 25F/-3.5C on Sunday morning effectively killing back all those summer plants which were still flowering on the last GBBD. At last!

I’d covered up the strawberries and brought the potted plants back inside. The winter hardy annuals (sweet peas, violas, pinks, and sweet alyssum) weren’t bothered. But a lot of plants, like the duranta and the podranea are finally gone and I’m not really sorry. Now I can clear them back with abandon.

I feel a sense of relief when I look out at the brown, uninviting landscape and think, “Oh good. It’s too miserable to be out there today.” Actually, I welcome the opportunity to work on some indoor projects guilt-free. The garden is demanding and never satisfied.

This week I’m going to turn my back on it, build a fire, and ponder this pile of seed catalogs.

Narcissus tazetta italicus
Narcissus tazetta italicus is very reliable in my central Texas garden.

January 15th, 2008
GBBD 200801: Jan 2008

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

What! It’s GBBD again. I can’t believe it’s been a month since my December post. Carol’s put the pressure on us southern gardeners to come up with a lot of flowers for those of you buried under snow. When I looked out the window, I saw a lot of green in the garden but not many flowers. Although there’s always something blooming here, it’s not the perpetual bower of flowers some of you imagine.

rose New Dawn
I waited and waited for this ‘New Dawn’ bud to open. Then it froze.

It’s been a very dry winter so there seem to be fewer narcissus and roses blooming. Austin finally had a few nights this winter where the temperatures dropped to the high 20s, finally doing in the stragglers from last year–or so I thought. Wandering around with my camera set to macro, I found a few new flowers to share and some hangers on from last year.

New for January

The Narcissus tazetta italicus opened yesterday (1/14) almost exactly a month after the first paperwhite. This is about two weeks later than they usually open in my garden. There are some paperwhites still blooming but the Chinese sacred lilies have come and gone.

Another new flower for January is Mahonia bealei, leatherleaf mahonia. It opened it’s first flower on January 6th and only a few more have opened since. I can’t see them from my kitchen window, yet, like I can when it’s in full bloom. Mahonia bealei

Typical winter bloomers

The rosemary had one flower last month and now has three. Summer 2007 was very hard on rosemary bushes throughout Austin. It was so rainy that a lot of our xeriscape plants just rotted. My rosemary bush was about three times bigger than it is now. All but one stem died.

The violas are in full bloom. They are so perky and persistant that I bought another flat of them. For the record, that’s 36 viola plants for $30. The other overwintering annuals, Dianthus chinensis and the sweet alyssum are also fulfilling their winter duties.

Surprise Hangers On

After some cold weather the first week of the year, the Dolichos lablab vine died back. When I began pulling it down to put in the mulch pile, I found section of vine still blooming in a protected corner.
Dolichos lablab

I had hoped that the Podranea ricasoliania had died back finally but there is a section just north of the garage that escaped the freeze and is still blooming. And I was further surprised that a flower opened on the Thai basil. The basil surely should be dead by now. I dug up the other basil plant and potted it up. We’ve been enjoying basil and pine nuts over Central Market’s handmade mozzarella this week.

Thai basil
Although some leaves are frost damaged, the Thai basil hangs on and has finally bolted.

Another survivor so far is the lantana. Actually the leaves, as you can see in the photo, are frost-nipped but it continues to put out flowers, some white, some purple. I have another lantana plant on the opposite side of the yard which died back to the ground on the first cold night.
Lantana montevidensis

I was expecting the duranta to die back to the ground. All three plants look green and don’t show any frost damage yet. They are all putting out miniscule flowers and golden seedpods at the same time. I love the contrast.
Duranta erecta

  • basil, Thai
  • Dianthus chinensis
  • Dolichos lablab
  • Duranta erecta (both flowers and berries)
  • Lantana montevidensis
  • Lobularia maritima
  • Lupinus texensis (another bloom on the plant that flowered in December)
  • Mahonia bealei
  • Narcissus papyraceus
  • Narcissus tazetta italicus
  • Oxalis triangularis (both purple and green)
  • Podranea ricasoliana
  • rose ‘Blush Noisette’
  • rose ‘Ducher’
  • rosemary
  • Viola cornuta ‘Sorbet Coconut Duet’

Christmas tree mulch
Austinites take advantage of the City’s free Christmas tree mulch.

January 12th, 2008
Oh, Christmas Tree

Dateline: January 12, 2008

As early as I could nudge AJM out of bed this morning to make me a cup of bracing coffee (decaf), I was off to Zilker Park for the moment I’ve been waiting for since Thanksgiving, Christmas tree mulch season. Although in the 40s when I began, the day warmed up to the 70s and this year quite a few people were shoveling mulch, into pickups, onto flat bed trailers, in plastic bags and cardboard boxes. Youngsters, middlers and elders, men, women and couples, with dogs and with kids–we were a convivial bunch. And the scent. Now I have the Christmas spirit.

A young reporter from the Daily Texan came by to ask about recycling, what we use the mulch for, and whether we thought it was more ecologically sound to chop down Christmas trees and recycle them or buy artificial trees. “What do you do?” she asked me. “Well, this year I didn’t have a tree. But I’m glad all these people did and that Austin has a recycling program.” The local news had a cameraman out and I caught an unflattering shot of me from behind on this evening’s 6 o’clock news.

To Austinites planning on getting mulch: wear gloves! People don’t always manage to remove those thin wire ornament hangers from every branch…or even every ornament. (If someone is missing a “Brian 1975” Hallmark baby ornament, I have it.) Also bring a pitch fork. The mulch packs down and it’s very difficult to dig it out with a shovel. Happy mulching!
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Lupinus texensis Texas bluebonnet
2007-12-22. The freak survival of bluebonnet seedlings over the summer of 2007 resulted in this bluebonnet flowering in December.

January 3rd, 2008
Oversummering Bluebonnets

I worry that 2008 might not be a very good for Texas’s beloved state flower, the bluebonnet. Under ideal conditions, bluebonnets sprout in late September or early October after fall rains break summer’s hold. By Christmas, each plant has formed a flat rosette about the size of a salad plate. The root system gets firmly established as the rosette grows to dinnner plate size. By late February, the bluebonnet sends up multiple stalks forming a compact little bush with a flower at the end of each stalk. If you pick these first flowers, the bluebonnet will stay bushy and more flowers will form on side shoots.

However 2007 was an odd year weather-wise. Austin enjoyed a cool, wet summer and endured a hot, dry fall. In my yard quite a few bluebonnets sprouted from fresh seed in June. Although this happens every year, these early summer seedlings rarely survive the heat and droughts typical of August in Austin. In 2007, seventeen plants ended up successfully oversummering and are already forming little bushes. On December 15th one of these flowered.

Lupinus texensis Texas bluebonnet
2007-12-22. The bluebonnets which grew over the summer are now forming small bushes ahead of schedule.

Unfortunately very few bluebonnets began sprouting in the fall of 2007. Only in the last couple of weeks of the year did I begin seeing new seedlings. Of course, they are quite small for this time of year, only a a few true leaves rather than a large rosette. And the weather remains very, very dry which means that they are not getting off to a good start.

Lupinus texensis Texas bluebonnet
2007-12-22. This bluebonnet just sprouted; it is a couple of months behind.

Lupinus texensis Texas bluebonnet
2007-12-22. This time of year, the bluebonnets plants are usually form rosettes about 6 inches across.

While the gardener may fret, the bluebonnets are employing their long-term strategy for survival. Their seeds have a tough coat which makes them difficult to sprout when dry. The coats are of various thicknesses so that only some of the seeds sprout in the same conditions and other remain in reserve until their coats are worn down. Even though the plants are fewer and smaller, once conditions are right, they will still manage to send up a flower or two. The seeds that didn’t sprout this year are waiting to sprout next year.

Now I’m waiting to see what the other oversummering bluebonnets will do. Will they also flower early? Will they be more subject to freeze damage in January and February? Or will the plants just sprouting now catch up to the plants which have been growing last June so that they all bloom at once?