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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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.

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.


I was over at Pam/Digging‘s the other day picking up some purple coneflower that she graciously shared after dividing. Her front garden looks all new and tidy after the removal of the vitex. She explained that she had dug everything up and rearranged it. She said it casually, as if she were rearranging the knickknacks on a table. My mouth dropped in awe. “I can’t imagine moving big plants around.” “Really?” It was Pam’s turn to be surprised. “I would have thought you did it all the time.”

Not I. I love digging up bulbs or dividing irises. I have no problem transplanting self-sown annuals like larkspur and bluebonnets, even though they both have long taproots and aren’t supposed to like being moved. I mulled over it awhile and realized that my hesitancy does not spring from a fear of replanting a plant. It’s the digging it up that bothers me.

Many of the plants I grow are adapted to Texas’s droughts and soils by having a long taproot. Such plants, like Texas mountain laurel, are notoriously difficult to transplant successfully even when they are quite small. I prefer to sow a lot of seeds and hack out any plants that come up where I don’t want them to trying to transplant larger plants. Moving something that’s growing happily (or even unhappily) seems too risky. If it dies, I’m out a plant I’ve nurtured for three or four years. (Like my beautiful Fatsia japonica that had grown for ten years by the old shed.) Once a plant is rooted in place, rooted it remains until it dies or I chop it out.

My other problem is the soil itself. Take your spade out in my garden any day, even after a rain when the ground is fairly soft, and see if you can plunge it in more than six inches. Despite the truckloads of amendments (which rot away quickly in our hot humid summers), the ground is unyielding. It’s not just a problem of heavy black clay or rock, although I struggle with both. The real problem is with tree roots. In this regard, I hate the cedar elms particularly. They grow a matting root system close to the surface which persists years after the tree is dead. And then there’s the roots of English ivy, bindweed, poison ivy and smilax to contend with.

Zanthan Gardens
Can’t get a shovel in the ground for all the roots!

When I go out to dig a hole in my garden, I have to take more than a spade. My arsenal includes a garden fork, a post-hole digger, loppers for big roots, pruning shears for small roots, a bag for rocks, and (if it hasn’t rained in awhile) a pick-ax. I don’t have to be cautioned against the old practice of double digging. I’m lucky if I can get down more than a foot. I can show you the tines of a broken garden fork still stuck in the spot it broke off thirteen years ago. For large plants, I usually dig down a foot and then build a little planter that’s raised off the ground a foot.

Zanthan Gardens
Even under a mulch, tree root suck all the moisture and nutrients from the soil, leaving clumps of hard black clay.

I have considered the idea of using horticultural cloth to line new holes so that the roots won’t invade. I think that this would work best in places where I plant annuals or bulbs. I can’t see how it will work for larger plants, especially ones with long taproots. It seems almost like planting in pots in the ground. Won’t the plants be restricted by the cloth? To be effective, I think I will have to dig out a very large section, line it, and then fill it with trucked in soil. This is what I plan to do with the bog garden. Digging out the section, however, is taking a very long time.

Have any of you used horticultural cloth to block weeds? How did you use it and what were your results?

Another question–are there any gardening techniques that you shy away from? I remember being amazed, last year, by the number of people who said they wouldn’t grow plants from seeds. And then there are those gardeners who hesitate to take up their pruning shears. I never realized I had an animadversion to digging up plants until I talked with Pam.


Today Americans celebrate our national holiday of giving thanks. One symbol of this harvest festival is the cornucopia, the horn of plenty overflowing with the fruits of the harvest.

That first Thanksgiving, native Americans shared a bountiful harvest with European settlers who were starving. They also shared their knowledge of the American flora, teaching the settlers how to grow corn, squash, and beans. Sharing the harvest–sounds like garden bloggers.

I’m grateful that you’ve chosen to share your gardens with me through your photos and your writing on your own blogs and your comments left here. I’ve learned about stringing up tomatoes, the possible danger of pecan leaves, how to adapt a power drill into a bulb-hole digger, and where to look for locally grown food. More importantly, I get a chance to peek into your gardens, celebrate your successes, and suffer with you through your disappointments. I feel lucky to have gardening friends all over the world. And, largely thanks to the efforts of Pam/Digging (Austin’s Garden Blogger booster), I’ve met a lot of new gardeners right here in Austin. Not only do I always have a blast when we get together, but I’m often the recipient of wonderful passalong plants. Your generosity is my horn of plenty, the cornucopia running over. My garden truly grows because I know you.

Special thanks this year:
* Pam/Digging (for sharing plants and her clever garden designs and for getting the Austin Garden bloggers together)
* Annie in Austin (for sharing plants and knowledge and wisdom and heart–her writing is the tops and she’s just as wonderful person)
* Yolanda Elizabet @ Bliss (for pure inspiration and gentle humor)
* Carol @ May Dreams Gardens (for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day and Garden Bloggers Book Club)
* Stuart Robinson @ Gardening Tips ‘n’ Ideas (for the Gardening Blog Directory)
* Angelina @ Dustpan Alley (for exploring the politics of eating locally and sharing her adventures in canning and preserving and for writing that is brutally honest)
* Kathy Purdy @ Cold Climate Gardening (for giving me a thrill the day I read her “Today’s Gardening Quote” and saw she’d quoted me. It was great to finally meet in the flesh after years of knowing each other online.)
* Steve Mudge (who doesn’t have a blog, yet, but who usually leaves a comment)
* to all of the former lurkers who jumped into the conversation

More Leaves Than Lawn

Three years ago I replaced my old gas mulching mower with reel mower. Overall I’ve been pleased with it. I enjoy the quiet whirl of its blades as I mow and am happy not to mess with gasoline or breathe fumes. Keeping these benefits in mind I’ve tried to overlook how difficult I find mowing St. Augustine grass with it. St. Augustine is a running type grass with coarse blades that stick out in all directions. The reel mower is more suited to a fine-bladed grass which grows straight up. In the summertime, it’s best to cut St. Augustine very tall to conserve water. The blades on the reel mower couldn’t be adjusted as high as on the old gas-powered mulching mower.

Looking my evaluation of the reel mower in my original post, I see that the problem I tried to ignore and couldn’t is that I really need a mulching mower. My yard doesn’t have much lawn left but it is covered in large trees. I relied on my old gas mower to mulch the leaves into the lawn. Cedar elm leaves are small and break down quickly when mowed over. Later in the season when the red oak leaves fell, I’d rake them into piles and run the mulching mower over them before putting them in the compost pile. Without a mulching mower, trying to keep the garden looking tidy in autumn is a losing battle.

So this week I bought a electric mulching mower, a Black & Decker Lawn Hog from amazon.com. I chose the model without the flip handle as I don’t have the kind of lawn that can be mowed by walking in neat straight lines. Amazon.com delivered it the day after I bought it and although I’ve only used it twice and am pretty happy with it.

Many people in the amazon.com review found avoiding the extension cord annoying. Certainly it’s something to be constantly aware of when you’re mowing but I didn’t find it any more difficult than vacumning. In fact, using the electric mower feels more like vacumning than mowing.

* quiet (Not as quiet as the reel mower but much more quiet than a gas-powered mower. It’s no louder than my vacumn cleaner.)
* easy to start (Pull the handle, it comes on. Release the handle, it goes off.)
* mulches
* no gas fumes
* easy to adjust the height from very low to very high

* heavier than the push mower (This is not a problem while mowing but it makes it harder to get it up the steps to the lawn.)
* very long length (The length of the mower from the front wheels to the back wheels is much longer than I’m used to and makes it slightly more difficult to maneuver.)

If anyone wants a reel mower, let me know. I even have the blade sharpening kit that goes with it.

Cultivating Friendship in the Garden

Before I met the Austin Garden Bloggers I didn’t have any gardening friends. For years my gardening has been a solitary pursuit. The only person I knew who shared my passion was AJM’s mom, and she lives in England. AJM admires the garden and will pitch in with big projects like cutting up tree limbs but in his spare time he’d rather be training for triathlons or programming or cooking.

The community I found among garden bloggers has been very encouraging. Kathy Purdy of Cold Climate Gardening and bill of prairie point were among the first people to leave comments on my blog and we’ve maintained a dialog across our blogs for years. Last week (as most of you already know), I had the privilege finally to meet Kathy in the flesh, reconnect with some of the other Austin Garden Bloggers and meet the latest addition to our informal club. Maybe coming down off all the excitement of last week’s socializing contributed in part to the grumpiness in my previous post. Annie of the Transplantable Rose, intuitive that she is, might have sensed it because she volunteered to help me out in the garden yesterday.

I’ve never had anyone garden with me before. I’m hoping Annie, who brought her garden fork, wasn’t too disappointed when I relegated her to the position of under-gardener. I was just so pleased to have someone to talk to while I was working that I would have been happy she done nothing but sit in a chair and keep me company. Instead she handed me tools and buckets as I gingerly made my way through the stump garden trying not to step on any plants and teased bulbs out of holes filled with rock, clay as hard as adobe, and tree roots. And she wrote down the harvesting stats. After four hours, we had dug up only two clumps of about 150 bulbs (60 of which were too tiny to flower). This is not particularly faster or slower than I work alone; however, it was a lot more fun.

You might reckon that we were easily distracted by:
1. conversation
2. my difficulty in keeping on task
3. my temporarily losing the map which shows where each clump is planted
4. my inability to finish a thought without interrupting myself with five other thoughts
5. a break for cake and coffee

And you’d be right on all counts.

PS. Annie, thanks for the chocolate cookies. They were yummy.

When Gardening’s A Chore

I don’t really think of myself as a gardener, not in the sense of designing with plants or creating beautiful garden spaces. I just like to putter around outside, especially if it means digging in the dirt. I’m turned on by turning compost. I like growing plants from seeds and collecting seeds from plants. Most of all I like harvesting crops from the earth, like potatoes, or flower bulbs. My most extensive collection of bulbs is my oxblood lily, Rhodophiala bifida, collection. Someone called it my signature flower. I like that.

In 1995, I dug up 64 bulbs in my front lawn, 28 of which were flowering size and the rest which were very small and took several years to flower. Today, as near as I can make out, I have over 1400 bulbs in about 64 different clumps. The growth is, well, exponential. And that was great when I had only 100, then 200, then 400. But this year I’ve reached the breaking point. Not only do I not have enough room in the garden to plant them, I don’t have the time to dig the holes, to divide them, count them, catalog them, and find people to take them. (Calling Austin bloggers. Also, Steve and Bill. Will they grow up in North Texas?)

oxblood lily bulbs
Clump 2002e-13 was in serious need of dividing. From 13 bulbs to 128 bulbs in five years: almost a 10-fold increase.

I read somewhere that oxblood lilies don’t need dividing. Although it is true they will continue to live for years with complete neglect, the bulbs will get smaller and smaller crowding each other out and eventually the flowers will decrease. That’s one reason I take counts and keep records– to track when I planted each clump and how big the bulbs were and how many flowers each produced and the habits of the plants (multi-stems, seeds, more offsets than flowers). This year I lost track. I don’t like not knowing. It makes me feel uneasy and not in control. I even had four clumps left over from last year I never got replanted. That’s bad management! This year I’m going to have to be brutal. In the past, I saved every sliver of a bulb and put it in the nursery where it might take four or five years to reach flowering size. Today, into the compost pile. (Oh! that hurt!) I must focus my attention only on the clumps that need dividing most desperately.

Where to begin? Instead of anticipating my inventory and looking forward to dividing my bulbs and multiplying my holdings, I just stare at the faded flower stalks with a heavy heart. The task at hand seems overwhelming. I attribute my garden grumpiness to the weather. We’ve gone from an unusually cool and rainy summer to an unusually hot and dry fall. Temperatures are still in the 90s and we haven’t had a good rain for three weeks. It’s hot out there and I’m not having any fun tackling fall gardening tasks. I admit that I was completely spoiled by our great summer. But this is October and I get cranky when the grass dries up in the heat and none of the self-sowers have sprouted and the pecans are filled with webworms and the caterpillars are attacking the roses and I haven’t finished turning the compost pile or weeding the meadow. I don’t have time to deal with any of it because I have all these bulbs to divide. Yep, I’m cranky and tired of the heat and wanting a little breath of crisp northern air to liven me and the garden up.

Does this mean I threw in the trowel? Indeed it does not. We gardeners are made of sterner stuff. We press on. Bad moods pass and when the weather turns so will my mood.

Gleanings (or why I didn’t go to the gym)

I didn’t get much firewood out of last week’s tree-trimming project only a pile a intensely ammonia-scented ground up chinaberry which am using on the paths and to cover the bare spots in the woods. Unlike the Christmas tree mulch which makes my yard smell like the Christmas for a month into the new year, chinaberry mulch makes the yard smell like the alley behind a bar. It started rotting almost immediately and the mold spores that fly up when I shovel it–yikes! I find it wise to use a face mask. I hope the face mask helps because I’m pretty sure this is the kind of mold which put me in the hospital with pneumonia 5 years ago.

Well today I was distracted from my set task of painting the front bedroom by the sound of chainsaws in my neighbor’s yard across the street. She is having her pecans trimmed. And I lucked out with a nice pile of pecan for the lugging home. Yes, it was as heavy as it looks. I don’t think I need to go to the gym and lift weights today. But it’s a good thing I do sometimes, or I would never be able to take advantage of the opportunities to glean. I can’t stand any waste. I come from thrifty stock.

Despite the sweat and toil, I do lift my head at times to look at the garden. Last week’s oxblood lilies have faded but as I suspected, they were just a preview of the main attraction. Yesterday’s inch of rain has set off the second wave. I’m going to have to devote at least one day to inventory. And then you friends of Zanthan Gardens, it will be time to glean from my garden.

Rhodophiala bifida
2007-09-12. A second wave of oxblood lilies shooting up as the old ones fade.

As for gleaning, I think I’ve recommended the documentary The Gleaners and I. It’s about both rural and urban gleaning in France where Napoleonic law protects the rights of gleaners and enables them to pick through the orchards and fields after the main harvest. It is a little slow in spots but conceptually fascinating.

Weeding After a Rain

I enjoy weeding after a rain. The air is fresh and the plants perk up. Best of all our clay soil becomes soft enough to relinquish its hold on the weeds.

Today I decided to work on the southwest corner of my yard which I refer to as the back forty. It’s part of my mini-woodland and I leave it mostly in a natural state to provide habitat for birds and lizards, as well as a hiding place for possums and armadillos. I’m glad I have room in my yard to allow for a little wildness.

Zanthan Gardens Back Forty
2007-08-17. Before. Strangled in bindweed.

With all the rain Austin’s received this summer, the back forty has become a spot where you can no longer see the garden for the growth. Most of it is bindweed, wild ruellia, and turk’s cap. Underneath there somewhere is my ‘Little Gem’ magnolia and two tiny Texas mountain laurels that I’ve grown from seed.
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