December 19th, 2007
Garden Insomnia

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.

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.

by M Sinclair Stevens

11 Responses to post “Garden Insomnia”

  1. From Pam/Digging:

    Nice post about our schizophrenic but ultimately delightful winters.

    I don’t know if you pulled the star grass sedge I gave you out of the pond, but you don’t have to. It’s completely hardy, though it will die back after a freeze. Before the new growth appears, I just cut it back in late winter.

    Thanks for the info…I was wondering about that. The star grass sedge is in the same pot as the umbrella plant so I brought everything in. Right now I mostly have canna which doesn’t like the cold at all. — mss

  2. From Julie:

    This year I had the good fortune to see your meadow TWICE in the spring, and it is a glory! Lazy-me, I confess to being disheartened to read how much labor it takes to look so free.
    I too like to grow things from seed but wonder how tall seedlings should be before transplanting. They seem so frail. I did a poor job of raking in poppy seed this year, clearly, because it’s sprouted way too thickly, in a clump. I hear tell that poppies don’t transplant well. I hate pulling out those seedlings, tho, for them only to die. Please advise if you have time.

    But how could you, with all this going on!

    I’ve grown both California and corn poppies from seed. They have a long taproot like larkspur, cilantro, and love-in-a-mist. However, I’ve had no trouble transplanting them if they only have two or three sets of true leaves (are about 4 inches tall or smaller). Prepare your ground first. Then dig up only as many poppies as you can transplant in a couple of minutes. If you think the roots will be exposed for more than a few minutes, dump them in a bucket of water. Dig the small hole deeper than the root and put the plant in. Then, (the important step), slowly fill the hole with water BEFORE patting the dirt back toward the roots. In other words, don’t pat the dirt around the plants and then water the tops of them. Put the water around the taproot allowing the hole to collapse in around the roots. Keep an eye on them for a week or two, watering them gently if they look wilted. — mss

  3. From Libby:

    Wow. I loved the then/now pictures of the meadow and dumbstruck by the amount of labor that seems involved in creating this “natural” scene. It never crossed my mind to transplant larkspur. Cool. Isn’t weird that what seems simple and easy to one gardener sounds like a lot of trouble to another? Like you mentioned that my espalier seemed like work, but to me it wasn’t. It’s like a return-on-investment quotient, based on a person’s desire for an outcome. But basically we’re still down to a lot of brute labor for beauty. Are we crazy????

    One of my great joys is transplanting seedlings. (I guess the part I don’t like is grubbing up roots.) The problem with the meadow is that after wildflower season has ended, it looks seedy, weedy, and shabby. So from June to December it’s not its best. I’m trying out more summer annuals, like the sunflowers and cosmos. But unless Austin has a really rainy summer like 2007, summer annuals require a lot of watering that puts a strain on Austin’s resources. (We don’t want to become the next Atlanta.) And it had grown so shady that standby perennials, like sages and ornamental grasses, never did well. I’ve cut back some trees this fall, so I’m going to try interplanting more perennials too. — mss

  4. From Julie:

    Wonderful precise advice, MSS. Thank you so much. We head out tomorrow but will be back in about a week, and I’ll follow this great advice. Maybe seedlings will be just right by then. And to have lots of poppies come spring 2008 would be a joy.

    Sure appreciate your time and help.

  5. From KAT:

    We’re bringing our 31 lb Sulcata tortoise in every night, because he refuses to hibernate like the desert tortoises but can’t be left out in our 30 degree nights. That beast takes some lugging! And he has to go out before his innards get active; imagine something about as big and smelly as horse poop in a metal tub….

    I like grubbing around in cold water–I’ll give you a hand next time we’re around!

    So do the tortoise and your rabbit, Che, have races around the house? I want to see that photo on your next family Christmas card. — mss

  6. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    Does it bother you that you have to put in so much effort for a garden that looks effortless? So many things in life look easy & belie the skill & expertise behind them. Your meadow looks like a great place to sit & watch the bees.

    No. I’ve always been attracted by the concept of artlessness. I remember as a kid seeing some movie where the hero complimented the heroine on looking good, but not all made up. She replied it took a couple of hours to get that effect. And Virgina Woolf always cautioned against letting the writer’s voice overwhelm the narrative. Maybe that’s not good advice to a blogger. Blog-readers seem to prefer a strong personal voice; as a writer, I prefer to focus on the garden, not on me. There were bees out today in the sunflowers. And I saw two butterflies, too. — mss

  7. From Nan Ondra (Pennsylvania):

    I envy you still being able to plant, mss! But I can see how it must be difficult to cope with such changeable conditions. It is a relief when we can admit that the growing season is over up here, and we can forget the past season’s disappointments and anticipate next year’s triumphs. I totally agree with you that the process of gardening is as much — if not more — fun than seeing the finished “product.” I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for people to grow their own plants from seed to be considered a gardener. But I do think they’re missing out on a big part of the thrill!

    I didn’t mean to imply that people who didn’t grow plants from seeds weren’t “real” gardeners–only to share my realization that what I enjoy most about gardening is watching plants grow. I don’t really grow a lot of plants from seed (in pots under lights). I let nature do that. I just rearrange the seedlings. — mss

  8. From Nan Ondra (Pennsylvania):

    Oh, no–you didn’t imply that at all! I was struck by Ms. Benson’s comment asking why gardeners should feel obligated to grow from seed. Of course, there’s no obligation in the case. But your meadow is a perfect example of what can be accomplished with some planning, nuturing, and patience. As you point out, it’s clearly the opposite of the “fast-lane, quick-gratification” approach!

    Yes. That’s exactly what I meant. — mss

  9. From Angelina:

    I have never felt obligated to start plants from seeds, but it seemed such a natural progression to make-from planting only plants from a nursery to wanting to see those same plants emerge fresh from a little pot of soil, or in some lucky instances right from my own outdoor patch of dirt. There is something infinitely hopeful and breathtaking about watching a seed you planted sprout up. I don’t always grow my plants from seeds, but when I do I feel such a deeper connection to the whole process and there seems so much less distinction between me an my garden. We become different parts of one cycle of life.

  10. From ml, maine:

    Scrolling down through all your later posts and beautiful pictures, I felt an inward gasp of empathy, recognition, and yearning, I guess, at your picture of hands in the earth transplanting the little larkspur seedling. I’m like you, someone who loves to garden more than the other kind of gardener you cited. I love to have my hands in the dirt, and feel a real tug at the sight of new seedlings and buds; these exert a stronger pull on me than blooms ever do. I guess this is why I love a “wild” garden like yours. And it’s why I can’t seem to downsize my potted plants; like yours brought inside against the coming night’s frost, mine clog every tiled space, necessitating lots of plants at floor-level, because we run out of tables and plant-stands.

  11. From Annie in Austin:

    I was another person who was lucky enough to walk through your meadow in real life – it was a rather ‘Howard’s End” experience. I like the idea of a meadow, but with even more shifting shade than you have, don’t see where one could fit here. But I do need some poppies.

    Is there a little more room in that temporary conservatory? There’s a brugmansia cutting waiting for you.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose