Welcome, Central Texas Gardener

Last weekend, I had the privilege of touring some wonderful Central Texas gardens. Not only did I admire plants and plantings, I was inspired by the creativity of all our hosts and encouraged by what they had accomplished themselves on regular-sized lots. These were very personal gardens, each reflecting the unique vision of its gardener.

I’m always astonished at the courage gardeners hosting tours show inviting hundreds of strangers to tramp through their gardens. Even the most respectful visitors are bound to cause a certain amount of damage, grinding the lawn underfoot, walking into beds to snap photos and trampling on plants. I can only guess at the months of preparation required and the worry about the weather. These gardens had to survive two years of drought, one of Austin’s hottest summers ever, and then a sudden deluge of rain before the tour. I don’t think I could do it.

So, when Linda Lehmusvirta, the producer of Central Texas Gardener, asked me if she could film my garden last April 1st, I was dubious. Aside, from wondering if my garden blogger friends had put her up to an elaborate April Fool’s Day joke, I’ve seen the gardens featured on Central Texas Gardens. Some of them I’ve visited in life. Many of them are designed by landscape architects, or by people who write garden books, or by avid plant collectors active in various plant societies. You know, real gardeners. Me? I’m just a putterer who likes working in the garden and writing about it.

Besides, Linda had never seen my garden. Did she understand that it was just a messy collection of plants that had no structure or design, no interesting hardscapes, no garden rooms, no places to sit, no fountains or ornaments? Did she know my one major construction project had left a scar through my garden and a pile of building materials stacked on one side. Did she realize that I’d let the front lawn die during the drought and lost half my roses? Did she know that Zanthan Gardens is basically a one season garden and that most of the year it looks pretty unprepossessing? I invited her to come and preview it before making a decision to feature it. I just knew she would show up with her camera crew and be disappointed.

But Linda has something something gardeners wish all visitors had. She intuits the spirit of a garden and comprehends the intention of the gardener. Most gardeners don’t see their gardens in the present. We see its possibilities.Those 3-inch tall seedling, we see in full flower. We also know the entire cycle of bloom in our garden. We remember those nondescript Mexicans plums covered in the first white blossoms of the year. Gardeners know how to unsee, too. We look past a weedy spot because we know that next week we’re going to pull those weeds and edge that bed and plant it out. Our inner gardening eye skips over the weeds, the bare spots in the lawn, the tools left out, and the unswept walks.

In garden visit etiquette we are told it’s a no-no to say, “Oh too bad you didn’t come last week, when the tulips were in full bloom.” or “If you had only waited until next week, when the larkspur had filled out a bit more.” We can’t help ourselves. Gardeners are tormented by the one-time visitor. A photograph–that rigid snapshot in time–imprisons the garden. A garden is a living thing, ever-changing in the flow of time. Of course, I do take advantage of those fleeting moments of perfection. Every day I find new compositions in the garden to write about and photograph. But what’s there one day is gone the next and if you visit my garden, you’ll find it a very different place than the garden on this blog. It’s the contrast between the ideal and the real.

It takes a special kind of person to see more than what’s there, to understand the underlying intentions of the gardener, to see what is meant to be. Linda is one of those special people. I’m glad that you get to see my garden through her eyes.

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.

Welcome Statesman Readers

If you are stopping by for the first time because of the Statesman article on garden blogging, it’s nice to have you. Don’t be shy about joining the conversation. Bloggers love getting comments. If you are interested in reading about other Austin gardens, check out the links in my sidebar or the latest comprehensive list at Pam/Digging. Austin has more garden bloggers than any other city in the world!

While here, you can explore the archives by category: read the history of my garden both outside and online, check out what’s happening Week by Week, Month by Month, or my latest garden project gone bad. Although I like to try new plants, for some reason the post I receive most comments on is the one on Indian hawthorn–a plant I despise and ripped out of my yard.

Our motto here is research, research, research and then trial by error. Lots of error. If we learn best from our mistakes, I’m on the path to genius. The best thing about garden blogging is that we get to compare notes with other gardeners, people who understand our obsessions, encourage us through our losses, and cheer us on in our successes.

Zanthan Gardens: Five Years and Still Blogging

On November 30, 2001 I sent an email to my friends and family announcing that I had moved, virtually. AJM had heard about Movable Type and since I spend a huge amount of time documenting various aspects of my life he thought I might be interested into integrating this then new technology into my existing gardening site.

The birth of Zanthan Gardens officially took place on September 13, 2001 with a plant profile on my signature plant oxblood lilies. I’ve always been one of those people who liked to read every bit information that I can on a topic and then write my own version. Answering feedback I received from a friend, I outlined my vision for the site.

I am finding that the most difficult thing to do is to get the correct tone and keep it. I want it to be personal, specific to my experiences because I like to read other garden writers personal experiences with each plant. I know that I cannot provide complete information about all plants, or even all plants that grow here. So I decided that the best thing to do is to write about plants I actually grow (or books I’ve actually read or nurseries from which I actually buy plants and bulbs).

I am trying to provide the information that I look for most often. Bloom time is important to me, too, and it is what made me start my garden diary. You simply cannot rely on any garden book to “coordinate” bloom time because it is so affected by region, and microclimate, and weather conditions that vary from year to year.

Identifying plants I have and plants I should have is also important to me. Since I live in an old yard, I spent (spend) a lot of time trying to identify various plants. In fact, my first two garden books were actually native plant books. I also find books on weeds to be very useful. Therefore, I want to provide photos and cross-reference the descriptions by other writers.

As you can tell, it is a very beta site right now. Providing the content is secondary to my designing and creating a site. Although I did some web site design and maintenance for ETI, I want to practice doing more complicated things.

I hope, over the weekend, to get the whole bloom calendar up. I also took quite a few photos this morning…so there will be some more plant profiles. I do best with deadlines. I’ll let you know…hmmm. Seems to me that another thing I could set up would be a mailing list.

Reading this again five years later, I’m surprised how clear my vision was at the beginning and how I’ve managed to stay true to it. The original pages, Plant Profiles and In Bloom Calendar of the site were for the most part static. I wrote all the html and css by hand using the text editor BBEdit. When AJM told me about Movable Type, I thought I could use weblog technology to log updates to the other pages. Very soon, I started using them to publish a week-by-week public summary of my personal gardening diary. The blog portion remains only one part of the entire Zanthan Gardens site. I wonder how many people are aware of that? Even I sometimes forget. I have a backlog of Plant Profiles to write and I always mean to update the In Bloom Calendars…but it’s just easier to mouth off on the blog.

The first years of garden blogging were lonely. Fortunately, most of my energy was going into my blog about living in Japan and the ex-pat community there were very early adopters of blogging. I had joined the Texas Gardening webring and met Austin gardener Val of Larvalbug. Other than that I received little feedback. It was almost eight months before I received my first comment from a stranger who found me via a Google search. Two of my earliest finds (or maybe they found me) were fellow Texas gardener, Bill of Prairie Point and sister extreme climate gardener, Kathy Purdy of Cold Climate Gardening.

This last year has seen an explosion in garden blogs. I think the credit goes to Blogger, which makes them easy to set up, and RSS, which makes them easy to track and read. In January, Annie in Austin read about Zanthan Gardens in our local paper and wrote to me about her garden web page Divas of the Dirt. We met at Smith & Hawkins, exchanged some plants and had a great talk. I mentioned to Annie how much we bloggers liked comments, and well, the rest is history. (Annie, do NOT stifle your comments because I said that. You know how I love following you around the blogosphere.) In February, Pam Penick, one of the first people to comment on this blog way back in 2003, wrote to me that she was starting her own blog, Digging. Each time I see an update, I can hardly wait to click over and check out her latest set of gorgeous photos. By June, Annie decided that the water was fine and jumped right into blogging at The Transplantable Rose. This year everything I’d dreamed of when I first began blogging has come true finally. After starting small, garden blogging has flowered and borne fruit. I get to compare notes and photos with other gardeners nearby. What a lot of fun we’ve had meeting each other and sharing our gardens. (Does any town have more active garden bloggers than Austin, TX?) Unexpected bonus: I’m in contact with gardeners all over the world.

A couple of months ago Kathy Purdy was kind enough to include me in her great series on Garden Blog Pioneers. My vanity has made me curious…Do you know of any garden blog started before November 30, 2001? that’s still running? Pamela Shorey mentions that Outside in the Garden was named blog of the day four days earlier. However, the earliest archive I can find is December 12, 2001.

6. For Love of a Rose

September 19, 2006
I suppose that even when non-gardeners think of gardens the first flower that comes to mind is the rose. As a teenager I used to help my mother with her roses and I still remember that she had ‘Mr. Lincoln’, ‘Tropicana’, and ‘Queen Elizabeth’. Every Easter morning before Mass she took a photo of us five girls standing in front of the roses in our spring finery.

However, I did not plant roses at Zanthan Gardens for many years. I had tried growing roses when I first moved to Texas and compared with Las Vegas, I found it difficult. In Austin the ground might be dry but the air is often humid causing the roses to be easy prey to black spot or mildew. And here the bugs are terrible. Plus, in my garden there is the ever-present issue of the trees. I didn’t have enough sunny spots for roses–they were all being used by tomatoes.

Eventually both sunlight and roses came into the garden. Influenced by a Christmas present I received from AJM’s mother, For Love of a Rose, the story of the family who developed the ‘Peace’ rose, the first rose I planted was ‘Peace’. It remains the only hybrid tea rose in my garden.

Austinites are lucky to be near the Antique Rose Emporium. Most of our local nurseries carry their roses. So I had plenty of opportunity to become familiar with heirloom roses while reading owner G. Michael Shoup’s Landscaping with Antique Roses and Roses in the Southern Garden. If you live in central Texas, it is well worth a trip to Brenham or San Antonio to visit the wonderful display gardens at the Antique Rose Emporium.

Given that I could buy an entire rose shrub for the same price as one iris rhizome, I found it easy to abandon my former passion for a new love. In addition to their scent, I loved the way roses could be integrated into hedgerows, as I’ve seen in England. I have chain link fencing on two sides of my yard and I wanted to cover them with roses. So I don’t have a rose garden or a rose bed–almost all my roses are shrubs or climbers and integrated into some other planting.

I seem to have begun my rose kick in 2000 and killed quite a few right off. I planted ‘Sombreuil’ in May 2000; it was poorly sited and never did well but took several years to die. I planted ‘Marie Pavie’ in June 2000, three months before we hit a string of all-time record-breaking highs which she did not survive. (Yes, I know better than to plant in June but sometimes I succumb to impulse. I planted “Caldwell Pink” at the same time and it didn’t die until 2005.) I planted ‘La Biche’ in November 2000 and she did not survive a year.

The rest of this entry I wrote in February of this year. We were already six months into the drought with six even worse months to come. Since then I’ve lost ‘Ducher’ and the prognosis for ‘Madame Joseph Schwartz’ and ‘Buff Beauty’ is questionable. However, I’m not the least put off growing roses. There is so much variety and each rose is so individual in its personality that I will run out of time and garden space long before I’ve had a chance to try all I want to grow.

Pam/Digging asked me if I had ever tried to propagate roses from cutting. The answer is yes…and three of them are still alive!
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5. Worshipping the Rainbow Goddess

AJM’s mother has a photo of ‘Champagne Elegance‘–the first named iris I ever grew successfully–in her guest room so that I feel at home when we visit. Our older neighborhood is filled with heirloom irises that bloom every year any apparent effort on the part of most homeowners. I have a pale yellow variety that blooms later than the white and purple flags–usually in mid-April around tax day. This iris is unkillable. I have seen small ones left in a pile (because I’ve never gotten around to replanting them) send down roots and plant themselves. They lead me down a pretty path thinking irises are a breeze to grow.

And so they can be. Bearded irises are drought-tolerant, lime-tolerant plants. They need little attention except keeping the rhizomes free of weeds (and in my yard leaf litter). Let their rhizomes get covered and you’re asking for rot when Austin’s weather turns hot and humid. When it’s hot and dry their fans brown and they look messy. They have a fairly short bloom period and individual flowers last two days at most in our heat. In bloom they have no scent (connoisseurs will disagree) but when the blooms fade they give off a somewhat unpleasant scent of ammonia.

Despite this I fell hard for irises. They come in every color except true red (which is why they are named after Iris, the goddess of the rainbow). They have more variety of blue flowers than any other species I can think of. I’m a sucker for blue flowers.

In 1997 I sent off to White Flower Farms for three rhizomes of ‘Champagne Elegance’. I don’t remember the price but at the time it was the most I’d ever paid per single bulb. When they bloomed the following spring, the flowers looked like something from a catalog shoot–not something I’m used to seeing in my garden.

I found Schreiner’s Iris Gardens online and began a buying spree that lasted four years. I amazed a friend once when I showed her Schreiner’s glossy print catalog (the large one they send you if you’ve ordered from them before). She pointed out one she liked and I glanced over and said, “Oh, ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Yeah. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it.” She thought I had the name of every iris in the catalog memorized…I almost did.

I fell in love with an iris called Seakist which was selling for $35.00 a rhizome at the time. I bought other things while waiting for the price to come down and when it selling for $15.00, I bought three.

Unlike my heirloom irises, my bought irises increased for a year or two and then waned. They want to be divided more frequently than I have time for and they demand the best spots in the garden then spend 50 weeks of the year not in bloom. The number of irises that I bought that never bloomed at all or only bloomed once, give me pause. I notice now that my extravagant iris buying stopped the same year I lost my job. If I were wealthy and if I had hired men to dig deep trenches for my picky plants, I’d keep trying iris after iris. As it is, I moved on to something that gave me a lot more flower for the same amount of money…roses.

Question for central Texas gardeners: if you have bearded irises do you divide them after they bloom in the spring or do you wait until fall when they start growing again?
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4. Wild for Wildflowers

That first year, after a 40 foot cedar elm split in half during a summer thunderstorm, we saw something in our yard that we’d never seen before. Sunlight. The entire north third of our backyard (about 30×60 feet) received glaring afternoon sun. I transplanted some canna near the house. They baked to a crisp in the reflected heat off the wall. The St. Augustine lawn died.

I decided to fill the space with annuals until I could think of what to do. Bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, were a natural first choice. Drive the highways of Central Texas in March or April and you can’t help but be amazed by the carpets of blue planted by the road crews after construction and then left to reseed on their own. (Thank you, Lady Bird Johnson). Bluebonnets belong to the lupine family which means they have nitrogen-fixing nodules on their roots–they enrich the soil.

Yes, I thought. If those roadsides can grow beautifully on their own, then I need to do something similar; provide the correct conditons to get a meadow established and then sit back and watch it grow. So grows the theoretical landscape. Are you laughing yet?

At least I wasn’t silly enough to buy one of the “meadows in a can”. Wildseed Farms is only 90 miles west of Austin in Fredericksburg and they supply all the local nurseries with wildflowers seeds. I’ve had the best success with bluebonnets, larkspur which come back every year. I planted short flowering bulbs, rainlilies, fall crocus, and species tulips. For a meadow to be meadow it has to have grass–so I planted the buffalograss ‘Top Gun’ which greens up early and stays green long into fall.

From the beginning the meadow suffered from two big problems. First, I considered it a garden and other people considered it a lawn. Other people were always stepping on seedlings and bulbs that they did not recognize as flowers about to make their entrance. I made paths based on where we walked, first with hay and then with mulch. I didn’t want it to look too defined, too artificial. When mulched paths didn’t work I began defining the beds with wood from a demolished privacy fence and rocks.

The second problem was that the meadow looks fantastic in April and May. In June it looks weedy as the seeds for next year mature. The other nine months of the year it looks like a vacant lot. I wouldn’t mind the lack of flowers but the buffalograss has been shaded out.

photo: meadow wildflowers
2003-09-16. Fall rains bring out the flowers on rainlilies and garlic chives but otherwise the meadow looks like a vacant lot. In the photo, I’m trying to decide whether to plant out the potted sago. I did.

photo: meadow wildflowers
2006-04-16. Notice how the original back half of the meadow is plunged into deep shade when the cedar elms leaf out in March.

To deal with the death of the buffalograss I turned the far end of the meadow into flower beds lined with irises. Again, borders of the beds and the paths through them change as the light changes over the years. It’s amazing to watch plants jump a path and establish themselves where they’re happiest. I try not to fight them.

photo: meadow wildflowers
2006-04-24. By 2006, what had been the upper meadow was coming into its own as a perennial bed. Unfortunately, it gets too much shade most of the year except July when it’s in full sun all afternoon.

In the midst of my meadow adventures I began receiving print catalogs from Marilyn Barlow’s Select Seeds. About the same time I was reading about Celia Thaxter’s Island Garden and I met Felder Rushing and bought his book (cowritten with Steve Bender) Passalong Plants. I could not resist the charms of those cottage garden plants which Marilyn Barlow referred to as the flowers grandmother grew.

I became enamoured of sweetpeas, poppies (corn, Shirley, California, and Icelandic), hyacinth bean vine, moonvine, morning glory, selected daturas, apple of peru, black-eyed Susan vine, feverfew, heliotrope, four o’clocks, clammy weed, clove pinks, viola, love-in-a-mist, amaranth, cosmos, and sunflowers.

The ones that succeeded best over the years were the overwintering annuals…in the south flowers planted in the fall that grow through the winter and bloom in the spring.

My one complete failure has been ornamental grasses. I love the look but I can’t keep them alive for more than a year or two. I even killed Mexican feather grass which seeds like a weed for everyone else.

Lessons Learned

I am already in the process of changing the meadow. Because the garden elsewhere has grown and grown, I’ve spent less and less time experimenting with plants I have to grow from seed. However, I’d like to go back to that approach. I miss the sweetpeas, especially and there are many flowers still to try. In fact, two weeks ago I sprouted some hyacinth beans and they are already two feet tall. I’ve seeded some cosmos in hopes of having some flowers in the meadow this fall.
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3. First Love–Southern Bulbs

In one of Allen Lacy’s books he recalls how bearded irises awakened his passion for plants as a child. Later he says that he no longer grows bearded irises and explains the reasons for giving them up. I read this when I was in love with bearded irises myself and so I was shocked that anyone could be so fickle.

Now years later with several love affairs under my belt, I can understand better how plant passions rise and wane. Annie in Austin reminds me that I’m not the gardener I was when I began 13 years ago; might I be looking for change? Before I answer, let me look back and recall those first loves, not just for the sake of nostalgia but to see what I can discover about this garden and this gardener.

I inherited a well-established landscape and so I felt no requirement to design a garden. My approach was to tweak and twiddle. I’d look out the window while doing the dishes and watch where the light fell at certain times of the day and think, “What would look good there?”

Beginning in fall the first year my garden revealed its secrets, heirloom bulbs: oxblood lilies, red spider lilies, garlic chives, oxalis, paperwhite narcissus (two kinds), ‘Ice Follies’ daffodils, summer snowflakes, starch hyacinths, bearded iris, and rainlilies. Bulbs appeal to my acquisitive nature. It’s hard to know whether I get more pleasure from watching them bloom or digging them up.

The farthest north I’ve lived in America is Las Vegas so I knew I couldn’t grow the traditional spring bulbs hyped in catalogs and garden books. A friend attended a lecture by Scott Ogden at Barton Springs Nursery and brought me a three page list of “Garden Bulbs for Central Texas”. Excited by the possibilities of bulbs suited to our clime but completely ignorant of any of the bulbs on the list, I bought Scott Ogden’s Garden Bulbs for the South; it was my bible for years.

I felt fortunate to have a yard which already had so many heirloom bulbs. I had a difficult time (in those days before the internet) finding sources for the bulbs I was falling in love with in print. I received a catalog from McClure & Zimmerman. Here, described in straightforward text in pages 3 columns wide, listed alphabetically were all the bulbs I’d ever wanted. (I still prefer their print catalog to their online catalog which I find annoying to navigate.)

Over the years I’ve purchased Acidanthera bicolor, Crocus speciosus ‘Cassiope’ and ‘Conqueror’, Crocus tommasianus, ‘Angelique’ tulips, the daffodils ‘Quail,’ ‘Trevithian’, ‘Jetfire’, ‘Triparite’, and ‘Minnow’ and the Alliums neopolitanum and sphaerocephalon. These all bloomed beautifully and came back for a year or two. But unlike my dream of bulbs naturalizing and my collection growing exponentially, these bulbs decreased year after year and I no longer have any of them. Then there’s the true lilies; I never expected them to survive Texas.

Should I also mention the caladiums, gladiolus, amaryllis, sprekelia, hymenocallis, crinum and canna here? They aren’t completely dead but neither are they thriving.

I did successfully introducing five bulbs: Tulipa clusiana, Hyacinthoides hispanica, Zephyranthes grandiflora, St. Joseph’s Lily, and the diminuitive daffodil ‘Hawera’ (which was packed as a bonus from McClure & Zimmerman.)

So I’m basically back where I started with bulbs. Okay, my oxblood lily collection has expanded from 30 bulbs in the front yard to over 1000 in a special garden made just for them. But when those other bulbs I bought disappeared, I became frustrated with the effort especially since most bulbs bloom only a couple of weeks out of the year. My attention was drawn to more showy flowers and I stopped buying bulbs.

Lesson Learned
Bulbs (rhizomes, tubers, and corms) are my stealth success. They make a big splash in the design only once in awhile. All my bulbs benefit from lifting and dividing. Not all of them require it but the soil they grow in does. Tree roots again. So my dreams of naturalized drifts of species bulbs never materialized.

As I looked over my bulb lists and photos while writing this post, I could feel the old longings stirring. If I reset my expectations and think of bulbs like other short-lived perennials, then I could consider buying bulbs again. I would love to reacquaint myself the daffodil ‘Quail’–it has a luscious orange scent and was the most vigorous of all the daffocils I tried. I think it might have rotted in one of our very wet years rather than withered in one of very dry years.

I’d also like the fall crocuses again. They are very small but they are charming in the buffalograss.

Despite my many dead-ends in bulb trials, I can always count on the original cast to pull through for me when the going gets tough.

If you live in central Texas, I’d love to know what bulbs you’ve grown and which ones failed or succeeded for you and over what period of time. I’m particularly interested in bulbs which have lasted more than 5 years.

If you are looking for a source for southern heirloom bulbs there is a new company in north Texas, The Southern Bulb Co which has been in the news lately. I haven’t ordered from them yet but their catalog has all the tried and true bulbs in my back yard. However, if you live in Austin, I can make you a better deal on oxblood lilies than $9 a bulb.
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2. Evolutionary Design

Annie in Austin asked me, “With a chance to redo beds and plan anew, are there parts of the garden that you were unhappy with anyway?”

I guess my initial reaction is to think that I hadn’t really finished implementing my plans for the garden. So I haven’t had a chance to get tired of it yet or long for a change. The garden was still growing into my vision for it. Not that I have any grand design. I’m not a good designer. More specifically, I don’t implement well from a design. I have a tactile approach to gardening.

Although I imagine I’d love one of the fab designs from Floribunda (Aren’t they the coolest!?! Most of these are in my neighborhood. I’ve been intrigued by them and was happy to discover they were all done by Floribunda.) or a lovely cottage garden like Pam’s at Digging, the reality is I’m a plant person. (I’m not saying you can’t be both, just that I don’t have the talent for pulling a design together–and not just in gardening. I’ve never owned a matching purse and shoes in my life, or even matching bras and panties.) I’m a hodgepodge and so is my house and so is my garden. And it shows!

Due to constraints of both time and money, I rarely buy more than one plant at a time. I was full of wonder and envy when some friends of mine recently had their garden designed by a professional. The cost of the plants alone was $1,000. The only plants I’ve bought this year were the three Duranta erecta that I bought on sale for $4.99 each (Still alive!) and an anemic basil which I’ve had in a pot for summer pesto but will be planting in the fall garden soon. Dirt gardener describes me pretty well.

Despite the dreary drought photos, there are only two beds that I feel that I need to tear out and completely replant: the two 12×12 beds on the south side of the house that I started as a winter garden. However, I don’t really know what to do with a blank slate. My usual habit is to watch how parts of the garden grow and change and then nestle in a new plant here and there.

I’ve tried designing on paper but it doesn’t work for me. I design in four dimensions (time is very important and frequently ignored in garden design I think). My approach to design, if what I do can even be called design, requires a lot of walking around and looking at the garden from various angles.

I was working in the garden all day today (not a fingernail left unbroken) clearing out dead plants. When I was finished and saw that newly turned dirt in one of the front beds, I thought, “If I’m going to have tomatoes this fall, this is probably the best place to plant them…it’s the only spot getting sun this time of year.” It’s precisely this kind of thinking that results in the odd combinations in my garden. I look primarily for conditions where I think a plant will survive and don’t worry much about the effect of my plant combinations.

Has this summer taught me anything? Have I learned my lessons? Will I reform? Or will I be at Gardens tomorrow checking whether they have their fall tomatoes in? Stay tuned…

1. Mistakes Were Made

Fall has fallen. I woke up this morning and the entire front yard (and my car) were covered in the buttery yellow leaves of the cedar elms. A light rain was almost falling–just enough rain to drip off the roof but not enough to get me or the ground wet as I spent all day playing in the dirt. (Camp Mabry measured almost 1/2 an inch but we were closer to ABIA’s 1/10th of an inch.) And the temperature, wow! On September 5, 2000 Austin hit it’s all time high of 112 degrees. Today the high was 81. 81! Eighty-one.

Pam/Digging and Annie of Austin have asked me some thoughtful questions. Credit the cooler weather but my mind has been going 100 miles a minute analyzing and theorizing. I began writing a response but it grew so long, I’ve decided to break it up into more digestible pieces.

I think the best way to figure out where to go from here is to determine where I’ve been. Pam gardens nearby and although her garden suffered in Austin’s drought, it does not appear to be as devastated as mine. So where did I go wrong?

1. I Bit Off More Than I Could Chew
My yard is pretty large for its location. The house was built on two lots totalling 15,000 square feet. Almost 90% of that is yard. In 1993, when I moved in, the landscape was well-established; it was already 50 years old. I’ve never really started a garden from scratch–I simply carve out a space or a place for a plant that I’ve fallen in love with.

Although I try to put plants with like requirements together, that doesn’t always happen. So plants requiring special care are scattered all over the yard. And though I began the garden with native and drought-tolerant plants, over the years I’ve expanded my interests. My idea, which has worked for many years, is that the natives take care of themselves leaving me time to take care of the special needs plants.

I do all the work myself but, in the garden, I’m not a very focused worker. (This is leisure, dammit!) Nope. I’m one of those gardeners that’s easily distracted by tasks as I walk from a bed I’m weeding to the mulch pile. Sometimes I spend an inordinate amount of time just smelling the dirt or watching clouds drift by or taking photographs. I can spend all weekend in the garden without anyone being able to see what exactly it was I accomplished.

And over the years I gave up three of my most useful tools. 1. A chipper/grinder. 2. My mulching mower. 3. AJM’s pickup truck. I miss the truck the most. Every birthday and holiday I used to get a cubic yard or two of mulch (AJM does know the secret workings of my heart). Do you know how many bags of mulch you can fit into a Miata? (Three.)

The bottom line is that over the years I’ve expanded the number of beds, the realm of the garden, with the expectation that the established beds would require less attention. That expectation has been disappointed.

2. I Forgot That Trees Grow
I always hate comparing garden design to interior design. Can you imagine a finding the perfect coffee table to complement your sofa only to have it grow disproportionately large and crowd out the sofa so that one side turns brown and withers? I’ve always thought it ridiculous to treat a landscape as something that can be installed as if it were furniture. Furniture is static. Plants change. Being aware of this, I’m rather surprised that the trees were able to sneak up on me.

When I moved here in 1993, my lot was covered in large trees: cedar elms, a couple of pecans, two weedy chinaberries and a sickly young live oak. That June the largest cedar elm split in half. On September 7 1995 Austin experienced 70 mile an hour winds and every tree in my yard lost major limbs. And I was one of the lucky ones. My neighbor had a huge live oak completely uprooted. Another neighbor’s tree had the top sheared off.

I was just beginning to garden then, and the tree disaster had a silver lining. For the first time there was sunlight in my garden. We could see the sky. I planted crepe myrtles, esperanza, salvias, and plumbago. Over the years, the shade has crept back in, slowly taking over beds planned for full sun.

My real problem, however, is with tree roots. I try as much as possible to make raised beds. Even when I can’t, I conscientiously amend the soil with compost before planting. However, when I later dig up plants to divide them, the tree roots have invaded. If I don’t redo a bed every couple of years or so, the tree roots suck all the moisture and tilth from the soil. When I look at the garden I think the hardest hit spots are beds that I haven’t dug up in more than three years.

I’d hoped that once I got those beds established I’d be able to move on to new beds. I don’t have the time, energy, or money to rework every bed every couple of years. I’m thinking of using horticultural cloth to keep out the tree roots but I don’t think it will work with the kind of planting I do. Which is more labor intensive? Which is more expensive?

3. I Was Complacent
I moved to Austin over 30 years ago. Austinites expect summer to be miserable and are happily surprised the few years it isn’t. Grousing about the heat is a city-wide sport. Every summer around the fourth of July I brace myself for two months of misery.

This was just another summer right? Wrong. Although the daily high temperatures were not as high as in other summers, they were consistently high for almost seven weeks. The real problem was that my plants were already stressed going into summer; the ground already parched.

Ever since last September when Hurricane Rita swerved east of Austin, we’ve had unusually dry conditions. Last fall, noticeably few self-sown overwintering annuals sprouted. Some, like love-in-a-mist, didn’t come up at all–for the first time in all the years I’ve had it.

I spent some time every weekend providing supplemental water but last spring I was in school and beginning the kitchen remodel so I put the garden on the back burner. (And you know what happens when you forget a saucepan of milk on the stove.)

4. I Ignored Early Warning Signs
Several bulbs (gladiolus, daylilies, sprekelia, irises) began withering and going dormant much earlier in the summer than usual. I should have dug them up right away but I just didn’t feel like being in the garden during our 100 degree days. I put in my couple of hours in the early morning watering but that was it.

Plants that rarely have problems with a dry spell turned brown (nandina, yaupon holly, English ivy, monkey grass). Except for the yaupon holly, I consider these plants friendly weeds; that is, I let them grow and fill in the gaps without any care from me until I can get around to planting that section of the yard.

I guess my biggest mistake was thinking that this summer was like other summers–that established drought-resistant native plants would pull through on their own. I believed that because the history of my garden told me so. And as we all know from watching politics, belief often clouds our eyes to the evidence in front of us.