August Water Usage

Update: August 2009
Worst summer ever. However, this year’s August water bill is somewhere in the middle of my highest and my lowest years, mostly because so many plants died last summer that I don’t have as much to water.

I gave up on the garden somewhere in early July when we hit 30 triple digit days. We are now at day 64 and expected to break the all time record of 69 days set in 1925. Stage 2 water restrictions go into effect today, August 24th. I have already been following those stricter restrictions, so I do not expect to be able to conserve water much more than I’m doing now.

Unlike 2005, my lawn no longer looks like dried hay. It looks like dirt.

1. location: Austin Texas
2. August consumption: 6500 gallons (07/17/2009 – 08/17/2009)
3. cost: $19.87 (water only; not wastewater charge)

Update: August 2005
Wow! This August my water consumption was low. I was in England the first two weeks of August, so used no water at all. Luckily, it was cool and rainy. These last two weeks of August should make next month’s bill skyrocket. My lawn looks like dried hay.
1. location: Austin Texas
2. August consumption: 3500 gallons (07/19/2005 – 08/18/2005)
3. cost: $9.16

In today’s bill the City of Austin included a brochure reminding us to check for leaks, especially if our consumption is above 25,000 gallons. 25,000 gallons! Hey! Save some water for the rest of us. What are you guys doing? Bathing in the stuff?

Update: September 2005
September was hotter than August and I used twice as much water. We reached our high for the year of 108 and we had 8 record-breaking highs in a row, all above 100 degrees. The rains never came this far west. I’ve lost two or three rose bushes. Most of the garden looks terrible. This is the first time I’ve ever seen nandina wilt.
September consumption: 8200 gallons (08/18/2005 – 09/19/2005)
cost: $19.92

Update: August 2004
1. location: Austin Texas
2. August consumption: 5600 gallons (07/19/2004 – 08/17/2004)
3. cost: $12.66

Original Post: August 2003
I try to be conservative in my water usage, but I don’t have any idea if I’m using more or less water than the average homeowner, or the average gardener. Sometimes I think I’m a little “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” After ten years of gardening, I have a sizeable investments in plants. It doesn’t make sense to skimp on water if I end up losing that investment.

So how much water do you use? Would you leave a comment and leave this information? I’ll do mine as an example.

1. location: Austin Texas
2. August consumption: 9,600 gallons (07/17/2003 – 08/15/2003)
3. cost: $20.82

I put the cost of just the water, not the wastewater charges which are figured separately on the Austin utility bill.


Zanthan Gardens: Our Summer Dilemma The post I wrote last year generated a lot of discussion.

Even the Cactus Is Withering

There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises. It sounds very well to garden a ‘natural way’. You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes gardeners. — Henry Mitchell

I’ve quoted this passage from Henry Mitchell before but I don’t know if I believe it anymore. It’s nicely phrased. Well, sometimes words have their way with writers. We exaggerate or expound because the words flow together. They seem to write themselves. They reveal unarticulated truths to us. We feel our muse has spoken, believe our own arguments, talk ourselves into a position.

I don’t believe that any one trait makes a gardener. Gardeners are gardeners simply because we can’t help ourselves.

We Austin gardeners are having a tough time these days. Today, the National Weather Service confirmed we are in the hottest summer ever recorded in Austin. We are in a drought so severe and ongoing that they’ve had to come up with a new classification to describe it. It’s like we’re in Spinal Tap with the volume set to 11.

As garden bloggers we feel the need to cheer each other on, to raise our fists defiantly together, to commiserate and console each other in our losses. I wonder, though, am I the only one whose cheerful front is wearing thin? Am I the only one who doesn’t want hear another word about planting xeriscape or native plants or adding still another layer of mulch? Am I the first one to crack under the heat as I run screaming from the room, “EVEN THE DAMN CACTUS IS WITHERING!”

Is Henry Mitchell really going to drum me out of the corp of gardeners because I think in times like these it’s foolish to be defiant? In some situations isn’t it better to bend gracefully like the bamboo than break like the oak?

drought-stressed cedar elm
The top of this drought-stressed cedar elm just fell over last week.

If there is anyone else out there who feels less of a gardener for not living up to some standard of defiance or cheerfulness in the face of this calamity, I want to reassure you. It’s all right to hate your garden right now. It’s all right to feel joyless as you water your potted plants twice a day. It’s all right to feel sullen as you drag your hose around before the sun comes up. It’s all right to feel sad, anger, disgust, and despair. I won’t try to cheer you up. I’ll start looking for silver linings after I see some dark, rain-filled clouds.

We are cautioned not to envy others with a trite, “The grass is always greener elsewhere.” I say, it would pretty much have to be.


Tomato Review 2009 Spring

This year there’s a lot of interest in growing your own food to save money. That may be feasible in some climates or even for some gardeners in my climate but it’s not what motivates me. I grow tomatoes because I like to experiment with varieties that I can’t buy and because I like to try new things.

However, because people are interested in growing veggies to save money, I decided this year to keep notes on what I spent and what I harvested to see how I managed strictly on the economic aspect of veggie gardening. My friend, Angelina who gardens in Oregon, estimates that she gets 12 pounds of roma tomatoes per plant.

That seems incredible to me. I had 7 plants and my TOTAL harvest was 12 pounds 12.5 ounces. (That’s just what we harvested. Twice as much fruit set as we harvested. The squirrels made off with the other half. So, potentially the plants might have produced 25 pounds total–still far short of Angelina’s yields.) Still, with organic heirloom tomatoes going for $5.99 a pound (Whole Foods Market), I definitely got more out of my tomato patch than I put in, even when you add up the cost of plants, organic soil amendments, and water.

Note 1: My tomato patch did not replace any lawn so it was not a trade-off on water…it was additional water.

Note 2: If you buy cheaper supermarket chainstore tomatoes, then your savings might be less. My comparison is based on what it would cost me to buy tomatoes of equivalent type and quality.

Tomato Season

I planted tomatoes from February 26th to March 5th. I bought 4-inch potted starts from Gardens, except for ‘Cherokee Purple’ which I bought at The Natural Gardener. The latter had signs warning that it was too early to plant and not to put tomatoes in until night temperatures didn’t drop out of the 40s. However, Austin had had several days of 80 degree heat the week before and last year I planted them too late and got nothing. So, I decided to gamble against the cold rather than the heat.

We did get a cold snap a few days after I planted them. The leaves developed little cold damage spots on them. ‘Carmello’ was the most sensitive to the cold. However, in the long run they all came back quickly and began flowering and setting fruit by mid-March.

Temperatures hit 90 degrees on April 9th. I was glad that I already had quite a few tomatoes on my plants by then. Although day time temperatures cooled off again, by the end of the month the night time low temperatures hit the 70s and no more tomatoes were setting fruit. By April 22, the tomatoes that had been in full sun were now being shaded until 10 in the morning by the pecan tree.

On May 6th we picked the first cherry tomatoes. In June we started really reaping our harvest. Last week we had a tomato based dinner four nights in a row. Although there are a couple of green tomatoes left, they are not worth the water to ripen them. So the first day of summer is the end of our spring tomato season.

Soil Preparation

All the tomatoes were grown in spots where I never have grown vegetables before. I was trying to find some sunlight so all the plants ended up in the front yard this year. They were in full sun until April when the pecan tree leafed out. Then they got about 6 hours of sun. To each hole I added sifted compost, eggshells, bone meal, and dolomite lime (calcium and magnesium).


This year I tried planting 1.5 liter plastic water bottles with 5 small holes punched with an ice pick at the bottom next to the tomato starts. Before planting I filled each hole with water and let it sink in. Then I planted the water bottle and the tomato together. I filled in the hole with compost. I filled the bottles once each morning, every day. My idea was to ensure that the amount of water was constant and that it was delivered to the roots.

drip system
2009-03-02. My cheap drips system made out of old plastic water bottles.

This worked really well. The leaves of the plants never got wet. I had no disease problems and no blossom end rot. I gave the plants the same amount of water every day which was delivered to the roots rather than having to soak down a foot. I think as it got very hot, I might have increased the water ration to twice a day. This might have kept the skins of the fruit from becoming so leathery. Other people say that too much water at this stage makes the fruit watery and the flavor less intense.

Stringing Up

My existing small tomato cages never worked well but I didn’t want to buy stakes or expensive larger cages. So I tried a technique I learned from Hanna @ This Garden is Illegal and strung up the tomatoes. I was afraid that the string wouldn’t hold the weight of the plant, especially with tomatoes on it or in a wind. However, it was really easy and there were no problems at all. This method worked really well for me and I’m going to do it again.
stringing up tomatoes
2009-05-06. I really liked stringing up tomatoes and it was a lot cheaper than buying cages for them.


I had no problems with insect pests. I found one tomato hornworm. Toward the end of the season, some of the ‘Carmello’ fruit had some stinkbugs which I picked off. The biggest pest was squirrels.

Tomato Varieties

I don’t have a chef’s palate. Although I can taste differences between the varieties, my opinion is that growing conditions had more effect on flavor than variety did. All the tomatoes tasted great in their own way when fully ripened on the vine; this was a feat not easily accomplished because of squirrels. At first we picked the tomatoes when they were starting to color and ripened them indoors. The flavor was unsatisfactory. Besides the squirrels began eating them when they were green. So we resorted to bird-netting. The squirrels still managed to get at some of the tomatoes but we finally managed to enjoy fully-ripened tomatoes. Next year we are building a fully-caged tomato bed.

The other thing that affected tomato taste was the heat. As temperatures climbed into the high 90s and the 100s (which isn’t supposed to happen in Austin until late July), the skins of the tomatoes got tougher and tougher.

My personal taste favors tangy, citrusy tomatoes. I love to make tomato salsa but we never had enough tomatoes. This is the first year I tried black tomatoes. When very ripe both black varieties were delicious but I still prefer yellow and orange tomatoes. We ate all our tomatoes fresh, with mozzarella, basil, and balsamic vinegar on the side.


Arkansas Traveller

Although 20 tomatoes set on ‘Arkansas Traveller’, we never tasted a single one thanks to squirrel predation. This is quite a popular tomato in Austin because it’s supposed to be able to deal with the heat.


‘Azoychka’ was the little tomato that could. It’s a Russian tomato and dealt with the cold very well. It was the first to set and it set more fruit over the season than any tomato. We picked the first few too early, when they were a bright lemon color and the flavor was still bland. When fully ripe, they actually deepen to an orange almost the same color as ‘Persimmon’. The fruit is tart and tangy. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that the sometimes had a white pulpy core.

We harvested 21 tomatoes averaging about 3.5 ounces each. The largest was 8.5 ounces. Total, 3lbs 13.5oz.

Black Cherry

‘Black Cherry’ had the deepest green leaves of all the tomatoes. They had a tendency to curl a bit and I don’t know if it meant there was something wrong, or it wanted more water, or what. The leaves didn’t yellow, so I didn’t worry about it. These cherry tomatoes are held loosely apart on long clusters. We liked the flavor well enough but really prefer the tang of a yellow cherry tomato like ‘Sungold’.

I didn’t think that ‘Black Cherry’ was very productive for a cherry tomato. We harvested 33 fruits for a total of 10.5 ounces of fruit.


I’ve probably grown ‘Carmello’ more than any tomato over the years. It has a nice zingy flavor that makes a wonderful salsa. ‘Carmello’ comes to a distinctive point on the end and I’ve never had any problem with it cat-facing or having blossom end rot. I’ve read that the skin is quite delicate and so it doesn’t ship well. Once temperatures got into the high 90s an 100s, even the skin on the ‘Carmello’ was tough.

‘Carmello’ was more sensitive to the cold weather than any of the other tomatoes. It is also did better in the hot weather, still putting out the occasional flower even in June.

The fruit is a little larger than ‘Jeune Flamme’ but a little smaller than ‘Azoychka’, typically about 2.25 ounces. The largest was 3.5 ounces. We harvested 18 fruit for a total of 3lb 2.75oz.

Cherokee Purple

‘Cherokee Purple’ was a very vigorous plant. It did not want to be trained to one stem at all. It wanted to send out shoots and flop all over the place. The advantage of the string method is I could just tie up any shoots it sent out. ‘Cherokee Purple’ had the worst problems with catfacing. I don’t object to eating ugly tomatoes, but when the flesh parts enough for bugs to get in, the tomato is worthless.

tomato catfacing
‘Cherokee Purple’ had the tendency to catface…the only one of all the varieties I planted that did.

‘Cherokee Purple’ was the last of the tomatoes to ripen. The flavor doesn’t take kindly to being picked early, either. When we did manage to pick some vine-ripened ones we were impressed with the full, deep tomato taste. I don’t think I will grow it again though because of the catfacing.

Although more than 20 fruit set, we managed to harvest only half of them: 3lbs 3.25oz. The largest tomato was 8.25 oz but most were about 5oz.

Jeune Flamme

I fell in love with ‘Jeune Flamme’ this year and will definitely be growing it again. It’s only about the size of a ping pong ball, maybe twice again the size of a cherry tomato. The little orange fruit had a wonderful silky/creamy texture (not too much jelly). Unfortunately, like ‘Arkansas Traveller’ it was outside the bird netting protection. Although we managed to harvest a dozen fruit in mid-May, once the squirrels found it we lost the remaining half of what had set. Total harvest: 11.25 oz.


I love the flavor and creamy texture of ‘Persimmon’ more than any other tomato I’ve ever tasted. However, ‘Persimmon’ is not very productive for me. This is the third year I’ve tried it and I’m lucky to get 2 or 3 fruit from a plant.

This year only 4 fruit set and we managed to harvest only 3 of them. They were the largest tomatoes we grew at 2.75oz, 7.25oz, and 9.25, a total of 1lb 3.25oz. Hmmm. In terms of weight, rather than number, that’s almost twice the tomatoes we got off of ‘Black Cherry’. Maybe ‘Persimmon’ is worth it’s keep. I will probably grow it again but I can’t recommend it to anyone who is short on space. Maybe it will do better in the fall tomato garden.

Note: There is another variety called ‘Russian Persimmon’ and they are not the same.

Saving Bluebonnet Seeds

I had a question recently on gathering bluebonnet seeds: how do you know they are ripe? It’s pretty easy to tell. When the shells turn brown, tap the shell. If you hear the seeds rattling inside, they are ripe. However, wait too long and the shell will explode when you tap it, throwing seeds everywhere. Lying in a field of bluebonnets on a hot May day, listening to seedpods pop is a classic Texas summer pastime.
photo: bluebonnet seeds
Ripe bluebonnet seeds open with a pop and a twist to disperse their seeds.

If you want to start bluebonnets in a new spot, you can cut whole ripe stalks (like the one above) and let them seed themselves in their new home. This is the easy-going natural method of seeding, great for wild areas. It might take several years to get a good stand going. That’s because bluebonnet seeds have coats of different thicknesses. Some wear thin and sprout the first year. Others take several years. This is a survival tactic to ensure that all the seeds don’t sprout at once, only to be lost to bad weather.

photo: bluebonnet seeds
Bluebonnet seeds ripe versus unripe. The green ones are NOT ripe and will rot if you try to plant them.

People tend to want all their seeds to sprout together, so commercial seed providers sometimes wear down the coat with an acid bath. People who gather their own seeds gently sand the outer coat down a little, just enough for water to soak in. I don’t do any of these things. Don’t need to. After a couple of years of growing bluebonnets, I’ve always had too many sprouts each fall. Individual plants (which contain multiple flowers) grow like small bushes to about 18 inches tall and two feet in diameter. In a small garden, you don’t need very many. I deadhead them to encourage more flowers and only let the best go to seed.

When you’re ready to clear out the bluebonnet plants, don’t pull them out by the roots. Cut them off at ground level. The roots are covered with nodules containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Not only are bluebonnets beautiful, they enrich our soil.

ripe larkspur seed
The same seed-saving advice holds true for larkspur (pictured above), nigella, and poppies. Wait until the pods are brown and the seeds are hard enough to rattle when you shake the pods.

If you have meadow plants in your garden, letting them go to seed means letting the garden look a bit messy for a few weeks. You’ll quickly understand why the word “seedy” means shabby and squalid. The payoff is a hundreds of free self-sown plants next year.

Pretty in Pink

Last October I posted about how certain lurid fall pinks made my skin crawl. Those pinks were so intense, so clashing, and completely out of season. In my mind Autumn belongs to the brilliant yellow, orange, and red spectrum.

You might have concluded that I’m the kind of girl who shies away from pink. Although I do gravitate towards black, whites, and grays, I can embrace pink if it’s icy pale and delicate and in its season: Spring.

For example, I never get tired of photographing the gorgeous ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison‘.

rose Souvenir de la Malmaison

And this year, after a 10-year hiatus, I made another attempt to grow ‘Angelique’ tulips. They are struggling in our run of 80-degree days but one flower has opened and I think they’re worth the effort.
tulip Angelique

Digging Holes for Raspberries

The north boundary of my back yard was one of those areas I used to ignore. A waist-high chain link fence divided me from my neighbors and the previous owners had planted a nandina hedge. I left it because it provided a nice green backdrop with no effort and it blocked the view of my neighbor’s back yard. When someone new moved in he immediately erected a 6-foot tall privacy fence and completely changed my garden.

Now the north bed is protected from cold fronts moving in from the north. The low winter sun shines against the fence all day creating a warm micro-climate. Last year I had a chinaberry and hackberry cut down and planted two roses and made a little herb garden here. This winter I decided to tackle another section.

2009-02-06. The requisite “before” photo.

First I had to remove the nandina. You can cut it to the ground and nandina will come back because it has thick fibrous roots. While I was doing this, I happened across some raspberries at The Great Outdoors. Now raspberries are our favorite fruit. When we visit AJM’s parents in England, I go out every morning and graze at the raspberry patch. But raspberries don’t grow in central Texas. Central Texas is too hot in the winter, too hot in the summer, doesn’t get enough rain, and the soil is limestone clay. Raspberries prefer a sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic soil with plenty of humus.

Are you laughing yet at my folly? Or are also you one of those gardeners who can’t resist a challenge? The nurseryman assured me that these ‘Dorman’ red raspberries could stand our southern heat. If that’s true, then I’d do my part to provide them with the kind the soil they like.

So to digging.
Roots, limestone and flint, and a vein of red clay.

Actually, you can’t really call it digging because that implies putting a shovel into the ground and scooping dirt out. What I did was break up clods of clay with my post hole digger (Vertie, can explain why this is preferable to a pick-ax), and then use my pruners to cut away roots. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

This took almost two weeks, working a few hours a day until I collapsed from the back pain. Thank science for ibuprofen. After the first week, I thought the hole was pretty well dug. I put some water in to check the drainage. It didn’t drain. The water sat there for an hour over solid clay. By the next day it had seeped and the clay was softened enough that I was able to dig it out.

I pile a wheelbarrow load of red clay by the driveway.

Job 2: Fill in the hole. It’s a little more than a cubic yard (see photo at top). With some planning I suppose I could have had some garden soil delivered. Maybe next time. I line the hole with weed-blocking cloth. I have poured tons of manure and bought soil into my yard and learned that without weed-blocking cloth the tree roots quickly invade and suck all the life out of the garden soil. If I didn’t use weed-blocking cloth, the hole would revert to the root-infested muck it was before I spent two weeks digging it out.

A neighbor of mine with a goat has given me a wheelbarrow load of goat pellets mixed with straw and juniper needles. I pour that into the bottom of the hole.

Unfortunately, the compost from the compost tumbler is not quite ready yet. But I can turn the open compost pile and sift out the good stuff from the bottom. I use the plastic trays from the nurseries to sift compost.


I mix the homemade compost with free coffee grounds from Starbucks. I also sift the rocks, roots, and clods out of some of the better black soil that came out of the first five or six inches of digging.


As the hole fills in I begin to mix in some premium store-bought compost: Lady Bug Hill Country Garden Soil and Lady Bug Farm Style Compost (cow manure from grass-fed cows). Fancy schmancy, I thought until I compared it with the cheaper cow manure from the big box store. The latter was filled with clay and rocks and did not have the light fluffy texture that the Lady Bug brand has.

I moistened the planting mixture every few inches soil that everything in the hole would be evenly moist (like a damp sponge). Since I did this over several day it also helped it to settle a bit. I place the still-pottedplants where they’re going to go and fill in around them.


AJM built the raised bed from pieces of the failed garden house.

Finally planting takes all of two minutes to pull the pot out of the hole, slip the plant out of the pot, and put it right back in the hole. (They are very young plants and not pot-bound so the roots didn’t need spreading out.)

The “after” picture. I sifted some of the red clay to put around the outside. It almost has the consistency of decomposed granite–which it might be given that I pulled out quite a few red rocks.

The raspberry planting project is not quite finished. AJM is going to build some supports. I still have to add a layer of mulch. I don’t know if raspberries will grow in Austin but I’ve given it my all. If it doesn’t work out, this will be a great bed for potatoes or other root crops.

Project Cost

$29.97: plants: 3 raspberry canes @ $9.99 each
$ 5.99: 1 cubic foot of Lady Bug Hill Country Garden Soil
$ 6.99: 1.5 cubic feet of Lady Bug Farm Style Compost
$ 4.96: 2 pack 4″ mending plates @ 2.48 each (building the raised bed)

Note: We already had the lumber and the weed block cloth.

In Search of the Perfect Tomato

I used to be more successful growing tomatoes than I am now. I even used to grow unusual varieties of tomato from seed, starting them on top of my computer monitor in my office (excellent source of bottom heat). Now I work at home, my computer has a flatscreen monitor, and I barely have enough sunlight in my yard in the summer to support 5 tomato plants. So rather than start my own tomatoes from seed, I find it cheaper to pick up a half dozen plants from a local nursery. I’ve found that in Austin, the best source of unusual and heirloom varieties (the kind I would have grown from seed myself) is Gardens.

I don’t have much room to play so I want every tomato I grow this year to be something special. Gardens provided their list of tomatoes (see below) and I’ve spent the last week researching them, trying to decide which ones to try this year. I was hoping for some good information from the garden blogosphere–I think this is precisely the kind of information in which bloggers could outdo print garden publication. But for the most part I’ve been disappointed.

Hands down the best garden blogging resource for tomato reviews I’ve come across is Hanna’s Tomato Tastings at This Garden is Illegal. For the last three years Hanna has grown a variety of unusual tomatoes and written extensive reviews of her experience. If you’re looking for tomato suggestions, start there.

Maybe I’ve just overlooked your brilliant tomato review. If you’ve written a post on any of the following tomatoes, or have recommendations for or against, provide a link and I’ll add it to this post. If you didn’t blog about it, just share your experience in the comments.

Help me find the perfect tomato.

Conversations with Very Important Gardeners

After several days of pondering, I came up with my wish list.

Thomas Jefferson

Any longtime reader would have guessed that Thomas Jefferson would top my V.I.G. (Very Important Gardener) list. In his day America was truly a New World, a seemingly unbounded world filled with more unknown plants than a science fiction novel. Jefferson’s enthusiasm for exploring the novel was bounded only by his sense of the practical. He was a pragmatist who wanted to know the best varieties, the best methods of cultivation, and the best tools for improving yields. He envisioned a nation of small independent farmers who would be educated in schools dedicated to agriculture. Curiosity tempered with extensive record-keeping and a desire to share knowledge (as well as learn from others) makes Jefferson a person I’d want to listen to, in any type of gathering, whatever the focus of conversation.

HRH Prince Charles

Prince Charles seems a perfect foil for Thomas Jefferson. Both, heads of state. Both, avid gardeners. Evidently environment shapes the gardener and the contrasts in their times and environment are stark. Rather than Jefferson’s unexplored unknown (and its accompanying air of expectation), Prince Charles reigns in a small, island nation in a time where population growth has paved over farmland and gardens with subdivisions, highways, and malls, where (in terms of space and species) the world seems to be contracting. His focus is on conservation in all its myriad definitions, a desire to preserve the diversity of life on this planet before it is irretrievably lost. Whatever the differences, I think both men share a certain weariness with being “head of state”. At the end of the day, in their writings, both have expressed a strong desire to just step away from the public spotlight and get back to the garden.

Karel Capek

Some people speak in thin volumes but their every word is a treasure. I think Karel Capek belongs in this tribe. In 1931 he wrote a little book, The Gardener’s Year. It seems like a light read but, if you are a gardener, every sentence is so, so true. Whenever I see a pile of leaves lying by the side of the road being wasted, I think of Capek and how he longed for the strength to ignore public ridicule and sweep up after the horses in the street rather than let the precious manure go to waste. Nor do I ever struggle and curse a hose or breathe deeply the scent of the good earth (eschewing the showy flowers) without feeling that his ghost is in the garden, nodding his head and saying, “This is the way it is with us gardeners.”

Helena Rutherford Ely

In 1903, Helena Rutherford Ely published one of the first books on the small informal cottage-style garden which is now so popular, a hundred years later, it’s hard to imagine it was once controversial. She was definitely one of my early influences. I love her sense of humor. I often chide myself with her opening line, “It has not been all success.” Although she did not originate the “First have your men dig a trench…” line, she had a similar philosophy. “I have but one rule: stake out the bed, and then dig out the entire space two feet in depth. Often stones will be found requiring the labor of several men, with crowbars and levers, to remove them; often there will be rocks that require blasting.” No she didn’t garden in my yard but she did understand my struggles. I just wish I could find those elusive men. She had to fight with her farmer-husband over their supply of manure and reports that he looks “upon [her] gardening as a mild form of insanity.” I know we would be instant friends.


There were so many others I longed to invite: Emily Whaley, Louise Beebe Wilder, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Vita Sackville-West (but only if she brought her husband Harold Nicolson…I have his diaries), Tasha Tudor, Henry Mitchell, Allen Lacy, Midge Ellis Keeble, Felder Rushing (I have actually had lunch with him), Michael Pollan, Elizabeth Lawrence, Katherine S. White.

In short, there are scores of garden writers I’d love to talk with. I’m fortunate that I can commune with them anytime. Just by opening a book.

Gardening is Political

Those who think gardening is a safe haven from the nasty divisiveness of politics haven’t been keeping up.

Whether it’s choosing to grow vegetables or a lawn (if one is even permitted the choice by one’s neighbors), calculating how much water to use in the time of drought, or even releasing carbon into the air by digging in the soil–no matter your choices, you will run afoul of someone’s politics.

Even the seemingly innocuous winter pleasures of perusing seed catalogs can have public consequences. Are the seeds treated with fungicides? Are they genetically altered? Are hybrids an attack on genetic diversity and the economics of seed-saving? Perhaps you subscribe to a native plants only policy. Is growing flowers a waste of land, water, and energy that should be reserved for growing food? Or is it our duty to grow flowers in order to provide wildlife habitats and encourage biodiversity?

What of the seed companies themselves? Aside from the almost universal agreement that Monsanto is a bad actor, do we care who develops, selects, and distributes the seeds we depend on?

Unnatural Selection

Morticia Addams was my second role-model as a child, a fact that becomes more evident in April when the bluebonnets and larkspur come into flower and I run around the meadow busily snipping off flowers as soon as they open. All winter and early spring I cultivate and nurture my wildflower meadow waiting impatiently for the flowers to open, checking every day, poking at buds. Then. They open. And it’s off with their heads!

My meadow flowers are rampant self-sowers. In the larkspur, especially, there is wide variation. I’m notoriously selective. I save the seed of my favorites and throw out the rest. I hoped, over time, to develop a strain of larkspur that favored the exact conditions of my micro-climate and of the variations I like best.

I used to simply collect the seeds from the plants I liked and cut the ones I didn’t like out before they set seed. Someone laughed at me and said they were probably cross-pollinating anyway. So now I cut off the flowers of the ones less favored as soon as they open.

I always collect and label seed but nature typically has a head start on me so much of what sprouts the next year is from seed I didn’t sow. I do find repetition over the years which makes me think the seed does come true. But there is variation, too, like the strange green-flowered larkspur in 2008 (which unfortunately didn’t set seed).

larkspur seedlings

This year I decided to take a more scientific approach. I sowed the seed in marked rows and I’m transplanting each type together so that I can see if the seed comes true and to what extent.

I’ve always been interested in selective breeding. As gardeners we can pick and choose the characteristics of our open-pollinated plants, keeping those with the characteristics we favor: best flavor, disease-resistance, color, size, early blooming or late bolting. Indeed we reap what we sow. These last 20 years has seen an resurgence of interest over heirloom varieties. Someone (I can’t remember who) made a point about heirlooms that I found quite interesting: the ‘Persimmon’ tomato that I grow is not the ‘Persimmon’ tomato that Thomas Jefferson grew–although it may be a descendant. In each generation we select a few choice tomatoes for their seed and over the generations, they vary (not from mutation but from selection–gardeners and farmers are the intelligent designers). So even the same open-pollinated tomato variety from different sources may differ.

All the larkspur in my garden comes from two sources. The first was a packet from central Texas-based Wildseed Farms (which they label as Delphinium ajacis, rocket larkspur) which I bought at Barton Springs Nursery in 1994. The other was from Select Seeds (so appropriately named!) a selection named ‘Earl Grey‘. The ‘Earl Grey’ has never been silvery or slate grey but always a strange muddy mauve. I thought they’d died out of the garden completely but one or two comes up every year.

larkspur seedlings

I began transplanting my larkspur seedlings on New Year’s Eve….very, very late but it has been so dry and the meadow (and thankfully the weeds) are off to a slow start. Already I’m impatiently waiting to see what will develop.