Password to Larkspur Lane

Do you have a signature plant? I always thought oxblood lilies were mine but quite a few people have told me that when they think of Zanthan Gardens, they think of larkspur. I grow a lot of larkspur because it grows itself. If larkspur put out a resume, it could justifiably claim, “independent self-starter and good team player.” Larkspur is a rampant self-sower (hundreds of free plants every year) and yet it has no bad, weedy or invasive habits. It blooms and is gone.

I picked up a packet of larkspur from Wildseed Farms the first spring I began my meadow. I didn’t know anything about larkspur. I’m not sure I’d even seen it growing. Larkspur is native to Europe, not Texas so it’s not a plant you see in roadside wildflower plantings. It has a long taproot and so isn’t a good candidate for a six-pack at the big box store either. So why was I drawn to larkspur? Credit Nancy Drew.

Zanthan Gardens larkspurMy introduction to larkspur was as a child in one of my favorite Nancy Drew volumes, The Password to Larkspur Lane. Ever since, I’ve associated larkspur with old-fashioned, slightly run-down mansion grounds full of mystery and perhaps a little danger.

Larkspur is the distinguishing characteristic which enables Nancy to find the hideout in the woods where the bad guys carry out their evil plans. Thinking about it now, it’s a good thing that the mystery presented itself to Nancy at the right time of year or she never seen the larkspur or found the mansion.

Nancy, who is always best at anything she tries, is an avid gardener in this book. It begins with her in the garden, cutting larkspur for “the annual midsummer flower show held for charity each year at the estate of some wealthy River Heights resident.”

“Why do they call them larkspurs?” Tommy demanded.
“I don’t know, I must admit,” Mr. Drew replied. “Nancy is the gardener. Perhaps she can tell you.”
“Why, I don’t know either,” Nancy exclaimed. “They are also called delphiniums, and I know why that is their name. They were the favorite flowers used by the Greeks to decorate the altar of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Larkspur is a quaint name, but I can’t figure out why it was given the flowers.”

If only the 1932 Nancy Drew had had access to Wikipedia which explains, that the spur on the back of the flower resembles the spurred claw of the lark. It’s also called lark’s claw or knight’s spur.
Zanthan Gardens larkspur
What Nancy calls larkspur, however, seems to be delphiniums. Larkspur has a fine, feather leaf compared to delphinium. Delphinium is perennial; larkspur, annual. As such, larkspur is sometimes regarded as the poor cousin to delphinium. Cheap and easy-to-grow larkspur is the flower of poor cottagers while perennial delphinium graces the more stately houses.
Zanthan Gardens meadow
This year I’ve experimented with how I use larkspur in the garden. Rather than just plant it in drifts in the meadow, I created a new bed (where the front lawn died last year). The beds are rectangular and formal and the only thing growing in them are larkspur. These larkspur were all grown from saved seeds and transplanted into rows. There are almost 400 plants. Despite the more formal setting, the larkspur manages to look blowsy, wild and free. And that’s what I love about it.
Zanthan Gardens larkspur

Herb Garden

I have a terrible time designing my gardens on paper. My garden practice is more opportunistic. I didn’t start with a blank slate; this yard had been here 50 years before I took a shovel to it. So, typically, I arrange the garden by walking around and seeing empty spots waiting for plants–often with said plant in hand.

Once a Tecoma stans and a beautiful David Austin rose ‘Heritage’ grew here. Then the trees grew up and shaded this spot and they died. Then I cut down the trees (invasive Chinaberry). Faced with a blank spot which gets lots of summer sun, I decided it was time to make a dedicated herb garden.

AJM is the resident cook and he likes to use fresh herbs. Fortunately many herbs thrive in Texas even as other plants are croaking. Most herbs like our poor soil, drought, sun, and heat. If just having plants that like Texas weren’t enough, fresh herbs are expensive to buy but cheap to grow. Every time I “weed” a handful of self-sown cilantro out of the paths and beds I think, “That would cost me 50 cents at Central Market” and into the fridge those “weeds” go.

Herbs require good drainage so I worked in several bags (about six inches) of Natural Gardener garden soil. I was inspired by the circular beds at Rock Rose. I didn’t have any bricks so I used pieces of wood from the failed garden house.

I started with some lavender that I’d grown from cuttings. I bought a 4-inch pot of culinary sage. It grew so well that I took cuttings from it and now have five plants. Last fall, I started some curly parsley from seed. It grew as well as the cilantro over the cooler months but was much more heat-tolerant. Some of it survived the summer and is growing well again now that it is cool. In the spring, I bought several fine-leaved basil plants and a couple of Genovese basil plants. The latter have self-sown and I’m potting up the new seedlings hoping to overwinter them indoors and plant them out next spring.

I tried some French tarragon which several people said won’t grow here. They were right. However, Annie @ The Transplantable Rose consoled me with some Mexican mint marigold, aka Texas tarragon, which began blooming this month.

This weekend I finally moved some bearded iris that had edged part of the herb garden, planted out an asparagus fern that had been in the pot I’d been wanting to put in the center of the bed, and decided that the sotol that I bought on impulse at the Wildflower Garden sale would look perfect in that pot–even if, botanically, it is not an herb.

No. I could never have designed my herb garden. It had to evolve.

A Matter of Taste

Walking over to Shady Grove for lunch on Tuesday I passed two flower beds.

One I loved…
annual flowers

The other I hated….
annual flowers

The one I loved is a commercial planting, the traffic median at the northwest corner of Lamar and Barton Springs Road. The other is a private home.

As I continued walking, I wondered why this should be so. What’s the difference between these two plantings? They are both exuberant arrangements of colorful winter annuals, planted in a small space, on flat ground. Why did one attract me and the other repel me?

Was it just a form of plant snobbery? I know a lot of people look down their noses at certain plants. These are usually the plants that every suburban non-gardener picks up by the six-pack or flat at the big box store. But I happen to like both snapdragons and pansies (although I prefer their diminuitive cousins the violas). And although there are some flowers that make me instinctively recoil, I learned over the year to avoid absolutes in my garden tastes. If I look with open eyes and an open heart I’m always discovering exceptions to the rule. For example, generally I don’t like orange flowers.

So it must be something that differs about the arrangement of these two plots. I think the commercial planting actually looks more natural and the private garden has that installed look of an office park or strip mall. Maybe that comes from the fact that in the median planting the flowers are not a solid sheet of color (I hate that). There’s a balance of space between the plants which provides a flowing rhythm. The flowers seem more proportional, too; that is, there is a lot of greenery visible. By comparison the arrangement of the snapdragons and pansies seems busy and artificial. For all that it is a “living carpet of color”, it seems stiff and lifeless.

I love flowers. I’m still trying to figure out why one of these works for me and the other doesn’t. What about you?

Can a Prickly Garden Be Inviting?

I grew up in two extreme climates: the desert of the American southwest and the tropics of the Philippines (and semi-tropics of Okinawa). On the various Air Force bases on which I lived, we had no gardens. The aesthetic (quite similar to modern American suburban) was what I call “parade ground aesthetics”; it consisted of large expanses of short mown grass (for parades) ringed by white painted rocks.

My idea of a garden came solely from books. I’m a woodland sprite at heart and in my mind a garden is enclosed by tall mossy stone walls, draped in green ivy and ferns, filled with white heavily-scented flowers, with some small water feature and a place to read or write or meet one’s lover by moonlight.

The reality of my garden in Austin is none of those things. We must garden where we are. Still I’ve always pushed the limits (and paid the price) in my plant choices. I’m too much a lover of the exotic to ever be a dedicated locavore. I grow plants because I find them interesting and not because I’m sensible. Austin has a split-personality climate-wise. If we plant bananas, cannas, and elephant ears in a wet year like 2007, they’ll sear in a dry hot year like 2008. If we plant Mediterranean-style plants, like rosemary and lavender, they get mildewy or rot in really wet years. On a really hot, dry year, desert plants look more and more like an interesting alternative.

Too bad I’ve never been fond of cactus and succulents. Looking out at my prickly pear cactus just depresses me. I detest my yuccas and am fond of only a few agaves. And yet, I’ve visited two gardens this year that have made me look at cactus and succulents with a more forgiving eye. The first was my visit to the Spring Preserve, which I wrote about here and here.

cactus and succulent garden

The second was on the 2008 Austin Pond Society Pond Tour. The garden of Jeff and Ray was my favorite on the tour and not because of the pond. Jeff is the current president of the Austin Cactus and Succulent Society. Not only does he have an amazing collection of plants but he has that ability to arrange them in pleasing ways (a knack I lack and covet).

Look at that top photo again. I love the curves, the balance of forms, shapes, textures and colors of the plants. I think that the problem with most cactus and succulent gardens is that the plant materials require a really strong underlying design. The plants themselves are so architectural and spare. They need an expert designer to arrange the pieces in a pleasing way. I have absolutely zero design sense but with my floppy, cottage garden I get away with a lot because the exuberance of the plants hide the lack of design (when they’re in bloom, anyway).

I’m actually drawn more to the geometry of this garden than I am to the careless approach of my own. I would like to live in this garden but I can’t imagine making it.

cactus and succulent garden

The terrace with disappearing fountain is a very pleasant spot to read a book over morning coffee.

cactus and succulent garden

The entire garden is below street level. It is surprising shady for a cactus garden. I’m guessing that the huge terraces provide the appropriate drainage. Descending the driveway is one of pleasantest approaches to an Austin house I’ve ever seen. To answer my own question, some prickly gardens are inviting indeed.

cactus and succulent garden

Losing My Passion

Have you wondered why I don’t write much about gardening anymore? No I haven’t been away. And I haven’t run out of things to say. (I have 50 posts in draft.) I’m simply cranky from the heat and don’t have the energy, or the desire to put a happy face on this miserable summer. AJM just rolls his eyes and says, “Oh, it’s just your usual summer SAD.” “No. It is NOT.” I reply testily. “Every summer you want to throw in the trowel and move to a condo.” I glare. “This is not your usual summer.”

This summer just tied the third-place record set in 2000 for the most 100 degree days. After Tropical Storm Edouard moves through and brings (we hope) a little relief, we will break that record. That would make 2008 worse than 2000. And 2000, all Austinites should remember, was the year we set the all-time high temperature ever recorded in Austin. In SEPTEMBER. 112 degrees. In 2000, the heatwave didn’t break until September 24th.

I’m not looking for encouragement or sympathy. I don’t need uplifting speeches from people who live in more temperate summer climes. You have horrible winters to even the score (Although your plants go dormant in your dead season. Ours don’t. They just die.) Yes, I know that someday fall will come and the oxblood lilies will bloom again. Nor am I looking for strategies to garden in this heat. There are many gardeners in Austin who are more successful than I am. Good for you. I admire you. I do.

If, on the other hand, you want to tell me how miserable you are, please join in. Misery does love company. I took a little walk around my neighborhood to see how other people were coping, or not. And it cheered me up.

Some of my more whimsical neighbors have responded by eschewing plants altogether. This old bicycle has a bed made especially for it. A perfect water wise solution to our drought.
Austin heatwave 2008

Even professional garden designers who don’t live in South Austin are not above the impulse to border and mulch an area and call it a garden. I like how Tom Spencer recycled fallen limbs to make this bold statement about gardening in Austin.
Austin heatwave 2008

Why are Austinites into extreme gardening? Well, between heat and drought, the leaves are falling off the trees…
Austin heatwave 2008

…even attractive plantings of Texas natives look peaked and sunburned…
Austin heatwave 2008

…ornamental grasses are suffering…
Austin heatwave 2008

and people new to the neighborhood have learned why Austinites don’t plant trees and bushes in the spring.
Austin heatwave 2008

That little patch of bright green is an affront to nature, isn’t it? Nature is on the left side of the photo. It wins.

Meadow Progession

Thanks to my visitors during Spring Fling and the article on garden blogging in the Austin American-Stateman, the image most people have of Zanthan Gardens is the meadow. The meadow defies all rules of garden sense. In a world seeking low-maintenance gardens with year-round interest, the meadow is a high-maintenance garden which has only one good season: from mid-March to mid-May. Although it has some Texas wildflowers in it, it is not primarily a native plant garden. As gardens go, the meadow does not have strong bones. You can barely see the garden for the flowers. There is little ornamentation. And despite photographic evidence to the contrary, there’s no place to sit in it–yet.

As I’ve often said, when it comes to the garden, I’m more of a plant person than a designer. Yet the meadow has both a design and a plan. The design is constrained by shade and one of the reasons I like an garden of annuals is because it’s easy to move the plants around as the light/shade conditions change.

December 18, 2007

Zanthan Gardens meadow

By mid-December I have already been working in the meadow for over a month. First I have to clean out the summer weeds (mostly horseherb) and rake up all the leaves. As self-sown annuals sprout all over the yard, I transplant them in drifts. I make mini-beds in the buffalograss, add sifted compost, and then transplant larkspur, bluebonnets, and cilantro. People might think a wildflower meadow can be made by just broadcasting a few seeds and letting nature take its course but that doesn’t work effectively in a urban space–at least not for me.

I’ve designed the view so that it incorporates, rather than hides, the back yards of my two neighbors. I try to balance the drifts of flowers so that there is a back and forth rhythm–like a series of S-shaped switchbacks, or the flow of a meandering river, or something from Andy Goldsworthy. Trying to get the right balance of color and height blooming together and in succession is the challenge of the meadow garden–what keeps it interesting and fun year after year.

February 4, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

Two months later and I’m still transplanting. The rosettes of the larkspur, bluebonnets, and Engelmann daisies are big enough to mulch around. Because this fall and winter were so dry, I did more mulching of the meadow than I’ve ever done before. I start poppies and cornflowers in seedbeds and then transplant them into the meadow. Cilantro is filling in on its own.

March 5, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

A month later and larkspur is shooting up flower stalks. Bluebonnets are one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom. We had a mild summer in 2007 but a dry, hot fall. Almost all the bluebonnets that made strong plants this year actually sprouted last May and over-summered. The bluebonnets that came up when they’re supposed to in the fall, were small and had few flowers. Usually this time of year, the meadow is a sheet of blue.

Self-sown baby blue eyes and false dayflowers grow up along the back fence with no help from me at all. All I do to help it look more like a garden than a patch of weeds is weed out anything else so that flowers of one type are massed together. Drifts are the key.

April 3, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

All the anticipation is rewarded with a riot of color: blue from the bluebonnets, pink from the pink evening primrose, white from the cilantro, yellow from the Engelmann daisies, maroon from the cornflowers. If I’m lucky, the roses, crinum lilies, and irises are blooming too.

May 12, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

Even in while the garden is in full bloom I’m out “editing” it–pulling out flowers that have gone to seed, dead-heading to prolong the life of others, marking plants I want to save seeds from, and ripping out the ones I don’t so they won’t cross-pollinate. As the season winds up, the yellows take over.

May 15, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

This year, just as I had cleaned out most of the meadow, the top 20 feet of that cedar elm in the middle of these photos fell on the meadow. I’m lucky that it missed the retama (in full bloom with yellow flowers), the sago palm, and the roses and Japanese persimmon (not in this picture). The variegated agave, the Lindheimmer senna (which was just filling out) and the crinum lilies were somewhat crushed but the damage relatively minor.

May 24, 2008

Zanthan Gardens meadow

Cleaning up the fallen tree limb put me a week behind on my tidying and mulching the meadow. A few stray spring flowers continue to bloom. The self-sown cosmos, annual black-eyed Susans, and clammy weed get along without any help from me–which is great because the heat and humidity are oppressive right now.

Extending the Season

I do have strategies for extending the season. I’ve tried planting sunflowers and morning glories but I they get too late a start to bloom well before the heat. I have better luck planting them in the fall.

I’ve had several trees removed so that there is more light in the meadow again. Now I’ll be able to replace several roses I’ve lost. Also I’ve been planting more ornamental grasses, succulents, and perennials (like Lindheimer senna). Pam/Digging has been passing along her sun-loving plants, zexmenia, perennial black-eyed Susans, and purple coneflowers. This year I decided that the hot, sunny meadow might be the best place for some summer vegetables. Peppers are my favorite because the plants are so attractive. But during the suffocating heat of summer, I prefer to keep the planting airy and open; I need room to breathe.

Bog Garden Comes to Life

Imagining the bog garden is a much easier when we get a month’s worth of rain in about 15 minutes. Even without any roof runoff the holes I’ve been digging to collect water fill quickly. The water overflows into the lawn and is slowed temporarily by the berm before rushing around it and flooding the garage.

Note to self: dig deeper holes.

This morning’s downpour was intense. I cringe to see all that precious water running off. My rainbarrels were already full from the rain the other day.

Note to self: get bigger rainbarrels.

My rain-catching terraces are having some effect in slowing down the runoff. The amount of rain pouring off the place where the roof forms a valley by the front door looked like someone had opened a fire hydrant. I think it would have overwhelmed any guttering system. Must check to see how VBDB’s new rainwater collection system handled this storm.

Garden Bloggers are the Nicest People

Maybe that isn’t headline news but I continue to be overwhelmed by the sweetness and generosity of all the people I met at Spring Fling. Today, I opened my door to this incredible present from Robin @ Bumblebee. A dozen of the most luscious chocolate-covered strawberries you can imagine.

 Spring Fling Presents

And so many people brought lovely little pressies with them, so unexpected and dear. Kathy @ Cold Climate Gardening gave me the coolest gardener’s key chain. VBDB @ Playin’ Outside made lemon ginger jam and shared her recipe. Elizabeth @ Gardening While Intoxicated presented a copy of her Buffalo Garden Walk book. Dawn @ Suburban Wildlife Garden, Vertie @ Vert and Nancy @ Nancy’s Garden Spot all shared seeds. Pam @ Digging surprised me with notecards made from photos of her garden. Carol @ May Dreams Gardens took me to lunch. Annie @ The Transplantable Rose had me and Carol to dinner and shared her signature cookie (and sent a bunch home with me to give to AJM who decided I must be friends with Annie forever just to keep those cookies coming.) And Dee @ Red Dirt Ramblings has some surprise in the works.

Actually it’s all a surprise. I never expected anything from Spring Fling except the chance to meet up with some of the people I’ve corresponded online with for many years. It was my pleasure to have you all. I’m so touched and overwhelmed by your generosity. I can’t really express myself very well…so I hope you just know. Thank you for coming to Austin. Thank you for visiting my garden and writing about it and taking photos. And thank you for making Spring Fling an experience so unimaginably delightful. Never in my wildest dreams…

Spring Flingers’ Secret Revealed

The Japanese have a saying, juu-nin to-iro, literally “ten people, ten colors”. Or to put it into less compact English, “Ask ten people a question and you’ll get ten different answers.” What has fascinated me about reading everyone’s Spring Fling posts is seeing something I experienced through other people’s eyes. One of the reasons I read is to learn to see the world through eyes more observant than mine, to think about things that would not have occurred to me alone. And so, to have almost forty different perspectives of a shared experience is revealing. It shows me how subjective the experience of a garden is. How much we take out of another’s garden is strongly related to how much we put into seeing it.

Some people focused on things I never gave a second glance. They peeked into niches and corners I didn’t notice. Others photographed the same grouping and created a striking composition where I just took a simple snapshot. All these eyes help me see what I missed. These different perspectives inform my own experience. Looking at them together I feel like I’m looking through the compound eye of some giant insect, seeing the world in a way I never saw it before.

For all the differences, there are some similarities. There are photos of bluebonnets and other wildflowers, of newly-made friends laughing as they pose with arms around each other. Many people tried to capture the dramatic descent to the pond at the David-Peese garden, or James David’s exotic voodoo lily, or a careful grouping of stones. I smiled in recognition and thought, “Yes. That appealed to me, too.”

However, one common photo on many of the posts seemed strange to me (although I snapped it myself), a shot of James David’s lawn.

For all our talk about tearing out lawns and replacing them with flowers or vegetables, why were we gardeners drawn to lawn. Did the lawn provide a sense of relief, to come up into the air and light after all our winding through the dark and narrow paths filled with exotics on a steep hillside? Did we need a dose of its strong lines and geometry to counteract the exuberant growth of the rest of the garden?

And yet we were drawn into the space only with our eyes. We all photograph it from the outside. Is there something forbidding about the lawn? something that made us all hang back at the entrance as if we were afraid to enter a sacred enclave? Perhaps a lawn as imposing as this one doesn’t need a sign saying “Keep of the Grass”. Or perhaps after admiring the clear swathe with its distinct lines and sharply cut borders, there was nothing to left to pull the gardener into it and we turned our attention elsewhere.

What do you think?

The Weed Garden, My Garden Wild

At Diana’s yesterday, with Bonnie and Pam, stuffing welcome packets for the Garden Bloggers Spring Fling, I realized how comparatively few garden plants I have in my garden. I decided I’d better set expectations for any Spring Fling visitors who are stopping by before Friday’s dinner at Matt’s El Rancho. (Anyone on the Friday dinner list is invited. Let me know if you need directions.)

Noted Austin landscape architect, Ivan Spaller said of me and my garden, “[She] spends her days toiling away in a weed-infested garden…”

And so I do. My garden is big and my budget is small. So I rely heavily on weeds to fill in the empty spaces.

Zanthan Gardens Wild
Visitors are often drawn to the bright fleshy leaves of the false dayflowers, Commelinantia anomala, only to recognize them close up and say in disappointment, “Oh. It’s that.” But I love how fresh and crisp the foliage looks and who can resist a flower with a face like this?
Commelinantia anomala

I also rely heavily on the false dayflower’s cousin, the spiderwort. It was in full bloom when I first saw this house and, in part, is what made me fall in love with this place. I try to confine it to the mini-woods but it insists on popping up in the meadow, the lawn, and the vegetable garden.
Commelinantia anomala

The cilantro, which I grow to eat, has taken over the meadow. It bloomed a month before the larkspur this year and makes an excellent filler.
Zanthan Gardens Wild

I do manage my garden of weeds, edit it. In order to give it some semblance of a garden, I think it’s important to clump like weeds together–a drift of cilantro, or baby blue eyes, or spiderwort. I will pull the lone larkspur out of a clump of Love-in-a-mist. I transplant self-sown plants where I want them rather than where they’ve come up. Imposed order is what differentiates the garden from nature. And yet, in a wild garden one must have a light touch. I was made very happy when two different people asked me if my violas had self-sown (no) because they were not planted in the typical straight lines of bedding out plants.

Zanthan Gardens Wild

I think I’ve always been guided, unwittingly, by a poem I wrote when I was seventeen–before I ever imagined myself a gardener.

I am a garden wild;
Growing thriving,
Reaching leafy green tentacles
In curious search.
I am, they say, haphazard, untamed,
Existing most improperly
in a world full of gardeners.