Thursday, June 21, 2018

Purple Martin Party Time!

Travis Audubon hosted a Purple Martin Colony visit this past Saturday next to the historic home of Laura Joseph.  Laura started the colony 25 years ago, the product of a lifelong love of the little birds.  The colony is tended, and carefully documented with daily data, by a group of dedicated volunteers called "landlords".  Steve, the "head honcho" of this effort, was in attendance to answer our questions and give us a peek at these interesting birds.

In February, the birds begin to arrive.  The mating pairs will produce around 500 babies by mid-May,  teach them to fly in the safety of the colony, then guide them to the larger migrating flock that draws thousands of sightseers each night to see them roost near Highland Mall.

Here in the colony, the landlords will first provide pine straw for nesting material.  Then the houses are lowered daily so that every single nest can be cleaned, eggs and birds counted, and houses carefully tended to ensure that the hundreds of Purple Martins who visit the colony each year have the best possible chance at a good life during their time in Austin.

Laura not only allows us to descend on her garden next door and the colony, we were also graciously treated to tables full of sandwiches, cooling raspberry lemonade and water, and delightful Purple Martin cookies made by Moonlight Bakery.  On a personal note, I have to say glazed sugar cookies often miss the boat.  They taste underbaked, and the royal icing can be dry and flavorless.  These were PERFECT!  Delicately browned crisp cookies with just the right amount of playful purple icing.  It was impossible to stop with just one, and several flew home with me.

All material © 2018 by Vicki Blachman for Playin' Outside. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

And just like that, this year's Fling is upon us - three very full days of renewing old friendships and creating new ones, seeing some gardens that challenge us and some that spark ideas we'll modify and plant in our own.  This is the tenth Fling and it's returned to where it started ... here in Austin.

Even though it's where I live, many of the gardens will be new to me.  There are others that are familiar favorites; but I'm looking forward to seeing my city through the eyes of a visitor.  Between the traffic and heat, it's far too easy to retreat to our air conditioned corners and lose out on what the city has to offer.  It'll be nice to leave the driving to our bus drivers and focus on catching up with our group.

We've had Flingers join us from Canada, Spain, the U.K., and most states of the U.S.  We've been to the D. C. area, Minneapolis, Toronto, Portland, San Francisco, Asheville, Seattle, Buffalo, Chicago, and of course, here in Austin.  Every year we learn about new people and "new to us" plants.  In case you haven't noticed, it IS equally about the gardens we'll see and the gardeners we'll meet.  It will be wonderful to focus on the things we share, not the differences that have tried to divide all of us this past year.

I promise to share highlights of my favorites.

If you've seen my blog before, you may notice a change.  In honor of my 10th "blogiversary", the format has changed - at least for now.  Please let me know if you like it better, or why you don't.  Either way, thanks to those of you who've encouraged me to stick with this.

Monday, December 4, 2017

This past Saturday was the first ever Austin Catio Tour put on by the Travis County Audubon Society.  They did an amazing job of showcasing 10 catios that varied in size,  style, and number of contented cat customers served.   One "certified cat lady" had a screened porch built for her herd, but hers wasn't even the largest structure featured.   A stop by the home with that honor came with a side of barbecue and refreshments.

One homeowner added style to her catio by planting a clean, modern border of foxtail ferns along the outer wall.  Her catio was basically a screened-in porch, and its construction included building a wooden deck, exterior paint to match the house, and plenty of cat perches clustered in favored spots to avoid squabbles over the perfect vantage point.

For this inaugural tour, all but one were built by The Cat Carpenter, David Murphy.  David is a cat lover and customizes the structures with the cats' safety and needs in mind.  By noon on Friday, 800 people had registered for the free tour, and optional donations had netted around $1700 for Travis Audubon.

A number of other cities such as Portland have also hosted Catio Tours.  But if you don't live in such an enlightened place, have never heard of a catio, or simply wonder why anyone would need such a thing, well find a comfy chair and read on. 

Catios are safe outdoor havens where cats can safely spend their time outdoors, watching the bird channel or simply lounging on a cat sized perch.  To quote Travis Audubon, "A cat patio or Catio lets frisky felines exercise, play out hunting instincts and snooze in the sun safely. They can’t kill birds, and cats are protected from dogs, cars, coyotes, and other outdoor hazards. The screened spaces can be elaborate, freestanding structures outfitted with sunbathing perches, ramps and spiral staircases or a series of inexpensive wood and wire cubes." 

Wondering about cost?  If you're handy, there's help and building plans available online.  There are also quite a few ready made structures you can order for under $1000.  But if you're looking for someone in Austin to do the work for you, David's creations are so perfectly crafted to suit the cats and their owners' homes, you may find it worth the extra cost and the wait.   He already had nearly a month long wait prior to the tour.  When I spoke with him Saturday afternoon, that wait list had turned into job security.

Although I'm a member of Travis Audubon and share their interest in birds, the real reason I went on the tour is my formerly feral cat, Kinky.  He went from untouchable neighborhood ghost, a little black head popping up briefly from the storm drains, to my own personal schmoo.  You can imagine it took time to build that trust.  A huge step was getting him to spend a night in the garage, even if he couldn't yet be contained during the day.  When a number of aggressive cats moved in with new neighbors and Kink was sliced open from an ear to his eye, he finally had to come in full time regardless of his protests.  Now he's comfortable enough with containment to use a catio, although he'll no doubt serenade the neighborhood all day.  He's a real yowler!

Having worked hard to transform my yard into a welcoming habitat for birds and pollinators, it's also my responsibility to protect those visitors.  Anoles, squirrels, rabbits, and yes, birds, easily fall prey to outdoor cats.  A catio would benefit all involved, and the vet bill for that last cat fight would've paid for it!  There's really no limit to the imaginative ways you can incorporate a catio into your yard.  On David's website, there's enclosed tunnels and bridges (catwalks, right?), some giving cats access to nearby trees while still being safely contained. 

For Kinky, we're looking for something that snugs up against an exterior wall, using the existing pet door for access.  At the home of Jeff and Kate Baker, I found one exactly like what we're hoping to build.

Their cat has access through a pet door that was installed in the lower part of a window, and there's a small exterior door to aid in cleaning.  A galvanized panel covers the roof, and the roof extends far enough to keep kitty shaded in mid-day sun and dry in a light rain.  This catio used poly deer fencing which is sturdy enough to stand up to cat claws, but it also has openings large enough to allow insects (and the occasional unlucky anole) to drop by for the cat's amusement.  I've had enough "presents" from the cat, and will opt for something with smaller openings.  Other catios on the tour were built with screening or hardware cloth, depending on what best suited the location and owners' preferences.  Here's the detail of the material, as well a close-up of the little door and handsome hardware.  You can also see the way the perch corners are finished nicely.

If you've got a catio of your own, or are thinking of building one, don't just lurk there - please leave a comment.  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

All material © 2017 by Vicki Blachman for Playin' Outside. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.   

Monday, November 13, 2017

Three Simple Ways to Garden for Monarch Butterflies

This past weekend I got to enjoy being with a room full of folks who completely understand the value of native plants to native wildlife.  They "get" the concept of co-evolution, the way that native pollinators and native plants have evolved to be mutually dependent.  And, of course, the popular issue of supporting Monarchs eventually came up because we all now know these beautiful icons are also dependent on a specific host plant.  But when the topic of planting milkweed for Monarchs came up, our discussion underscored something I find myself repeating over and over, and repeated yet again to this experienced group.  When several of them were surprised, I decided to repeat it here as well.  Remember, if you hear or see something repeated three times, it's going to be a test question.

As central Texans who find ourselves smack dab in the squeeze point through which all Monarchs east of the Rockies travel during their migration, we really need to focus on providing nectar sources during the fall.  Yes, nectar sources, not milkweed.  Monarch adults expend a LOT of energy during that long trip to Mexico.   That requires ready access to plentiful sources of carbohydrates and amino acids along the way.  These are provided by the flowering plants we generally consider beneficial to both bees and butterflies. 

In general, Monarchs suspend reproduction until sometime around February to avoid depleting the energy stores needed to migrate the long distance required and survive the winter roost. To underscore the test question here, from August through December, they need all the nectar sources we can provide, as well as the shelter a variety of plants can supply, along any route they may travel south.

The milkweed we've been programmed to plant will still be needed in the spring as they make the return trip.   As up to five generations may be born on that migration back northwards, they'll need nectar sources again, but also the milkweed on which those generations depend.  Yes, that's when we need to break out the milkweed.  I already hear you saying, "But it's October and they're laying eggs. I'm seeing caterpillars eating that tropical milkweed I was told to plant."  I have no doubt you have.  But are you seeing eggs or caterpillars on any of our native milkweeds?  I suspect you do not.  They're all milkweeds, but there's evidence they don't affect Monarchs in exactly the same way.

There is growing concern that tropical milkweed, Asclepia curassavica, may endanger migrating Monarchs for a number of reasons:  (a) a disruption of reproductive diapause,  resulting in extended breeding by migrating adults, (b) the presence of OE spores in plants that don't die back regularly in increasingly temperate winters, (c) insufficient food stores and freezing temperatures affecting caterpillars developing late in the season.  While we wait for the experts to settle this issue, there are three simple things we can do.

Right now you could check out the links included in this post and concentrate on making available a wide variety of nectar producing plants so Monarchs can do what?  FEED IN THE FALL.  

Then, if you grow them, cut your tropical milkweed plants back to a height of about 6 inches sometime around Labor Day.  CLEAR THE WAY ON LABOR DAY.   

Around Valentine's Day, start planning the welcome back party because those returning Monarchs will be feeling frisky again.  This is the time a good host will provide a full menu of host plants as well as a variety of nectar plants, meaning plenty to eat AND drink.  The native milkweed seeds that you planted last year (you did that, right?) should start coming up and any tropical milkweeds you cut back around Labor Day will begin to put out new growth.  Just remember, FULL MENU IN FEBRUARY. 

So there you have it - my three simple ways to garden for Monarch butterflies:


   All material © 2017 by Vicki Blachman for Playin' Outside. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.   

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Rain Chains

Why do I always hear Rex Harrison's voice from My Fair Lady when I hear "rain chains"?  We're not in Spain, nor in the plains, but by George I've finally got it, I mean, got one.  It's been sitting in a box at least two years waiting for me to repair the fascia and soffit, then paint, then install a short section of guttering just so it could be deployed.  No doubt you know how that goes.  But it's all completed now and ready for the reveal.

The bottom of the chain is anchored in a large pot full of stones, something I decided to do to further slow the runoff.  Underneath and surrounding the pot are more of the same stones.

After watching it in action through some hard rains, I can report it functions very well.  The water gently cascades down and no longer washes out the bed or the gravel along the side of the driveway, and it's just so darned pretty to watch in action.

However, we have three oaks and a crape myrtle in the front that drop leaves and little bits of themselves on the roof and surrounding area.  Too much of that stuff finds its way onto the roof and gets washed into the gutter/rain chain.  Knowing this, I probably should have chosen an open chain design, rather than one that has these little cups.   I'm tall enough to pick out most of it, but that same darned leaf in the very top cup has eluded my grasp. 

It's not enough to block drainage or cause problems, but leaves and tree debris should be a consideration if you're thinking about installing a rain chain in your garden.  I was looking for the dark metal finish to blend with other garden elements and leaves simply weren't part of my sorting algorithm. 

This lovely came complete with that metal adapter from Rain Chains Direct (thank you Clayton!) which sells a large selection on their website as well as through Amazon.  It was furnished in exchange for my unbiased evaluation.

All material © 2017 by Vicki Blachman for Playin' Outside. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.  

Monday, September 18, 2017

Another Dang Opportunity

When we recently had to remove a mature Arizona Ash from our back yard, we went from a shade garden to one passionately caressed by the hot reach of the Death Star.  A couple of plants curled up and died before they could adjust, but the resilience and flexibility of most truly surprised me.  They've merely gotten a bad sunburn and the new foliage seems to be growing in tolerant of the increased sun.  Having plants that are native or well adapted to our area must give them a healthy resilience in extremes.

It wasn't just the plants that needed time to adjust.  Mourning the loss of the tree and considering the changes ahead were a bit overwhelming to me, and I'll admit to being fairly grumpy for about a week.  Finally I could see it as just another dang opportunity.  Here's a peek at the good news that grew out of the bad.

As you may know, my garden is all about supporting pollinators.  A variety of bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and fairly benign wasps honor my efforts by making regular visits.  Any plan for coping with changes in the garden had to start with plants that would serve pollinators as food, housing, or as a host for their offspring.  

After a little research, the desert willow 'Son of Bubba' became the focal point for a new bed.  Bees love it, and its wispy growth means it doesn't block the view in my small yard.  As a matter of fact, it's almost invisible in the photo above where it's planted about 3 feet to the right of the end of the path.  Here's a closer look before the ash's stump was ground up:


For its new companions, I chose snake plant (Dyschoriste linearis), red Salvia greggii, Skeleton-leaf goldeneye (Viguiera stenoloba), bulbine (Bulbine frutescens), 'Ham and Eggs' lantana (Lantana camara 'Ham and Eggs'), 'Provence' lavender (Lavandula x intermedia 'Provence'), and Hesperaloe parviflora 'Brakelights'.  All new plants were purchased from trusted local nurseries able to verify they've been grown without neonics or pesticides, so my insect visitors aren't simply attracted to plants that would kill them.  This new area is already alive with hummingbirds and a variety of bees and butterflies.  That's the only seal of approval needed!

Finally it also seemed the right time to replace the bricks that have served as a temporary border for a constantly shifting edge.  It's taken years to convince my sweetie that our home's resale value might not actually suffer from the removal of turf, so each year our flower beds would quietly encroach a little more.  We'll keep small areas of green to help slow the movement of storm water across our lot, never fertilizing or fussing over it; and you can see what we're calling The Great Lawn at the end of the path and new bed.  It's actually slightly bowl shaped so it fills with water that soaks into the soil within a few hours.

So once again my garden reminds me change can be challenging, but that it's comforting and exciting to create the next chapter in my garden's growth.  

All material © 2017 by Vicki Blachman for Playin' Outside. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Values of Good Editing

When writing, I've always preferred to pour out all my random thoughts on the topic then edit down to a tighter, cohesive narrative.  Before computers allowed me to drag, drop, and delete items at will, I employed an old screenwriters' trick using 3 x 5 index cards.  Each thought was written on its own card, then cards were shuffled and swapped around until my story found a pleasing flow.  Once that outline was in place, I would get to work fleshing out the little details and bits of color that made it interesting while also getting rid of things that no longer worked.

I realize this technique isn't unique to me.  However, what's painfully obvious is the number of people who release their thoughts to the world immediately after the initial pouring out stage.  They skip, or find unnecessary,  the all important next step of editing out the superfluous.  As a lover of the well-turned phrase, rare word, or even a tidy absence of grammatical errors, it's easy for me to find fault.  I'll go so far as to admit to some harsh judgment on my part.
Imagine my discomfort then to find a good edit was called for in my own back yard.  Literally.  And no, I'm not using literally when I mean figuratively.  It's actually the garden behind my house, that planted collection visible from my back door, that's in need of editing.   For years I've been plopping plants into the soil anywhere I found a space big enough to handle one more rootball.   After one too many mild winters collided with an increasing amount of sheer horticultural luck, those green chickens have come home to roost.  It's clearly time to drag, drop, dig up, and delete.

A recent visit to my friend Pam Penick's garden was a delightful reminder of the importance of inspired design and the value of blank space.  Her garden features many of the same plants I grow, but there is clearly a design at work, a strong outline.  Plants are visible, not swallowed by a neighbor in some botanical version of a doomsday novel.  They shine in their chosen placement, not merely bear up under their circumstances like a Dickens character.   Small unplanted spaces provide restful punctuation and framing.  And on more than one occasion, I've heard Pam say a plant was removed (gasp!) when it failed in the larger design narrative.  Wow.

So here is my commitment.   I will step back and employ my inner editor.  She will be harsh and at times severe.  Hopefully, she will improve the story I'm trying to tell by clearing out that which no longer serves it.

All material © 2008 - 2017 by Vicki Blachman for Playin' Outside.
 Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

More Grows in a Garden ...

This is short, but something I really felt a need to share.  There's a delightful Spanish dicho I've been thinking a lot about recently - ""En un jardín crecen más cosas que las que siembra el jardinero."  It's generally translated as "more grows in a garden than a gardener sows."

What unexpected thing has been growing in my garden?  
"Surprise" as the noun rather than as startling exclamatory statement as you're jumping out from behind the sofa when someone's not expecting a party.  Or maybe it's a feeling better described as wonder, or delight. 

It's discovering a bloom, or a tiny lizard, a brief cooling shower, or a trio of migrating Indigo Bunting eating seedheads.  It sounds silly, but as I slowly molt into an old, wrinkled crone, surprise and delight are valuable commodities that keep me young in spirit.  Far too many things threaten to drag me into a pit of cynicism and irritation, even without our current political cycle of rancor and ignorance.  (See?  That was the cynical crone creeping in again.)

So as I wander my little urban garden, it's medicinal.  Wonder and delight are restored.
When you go outside, what makes you feel like a kid again?

All material © 2008 - 2016 by Vicki Blachman for Playin' Outside.
 Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Post or Perish

At the last Garden Bloggers Fling  in Toronto, many friends said they'd like to hear more from me.  I duly vowed to post more, then did.  Unfortunately, it was all on Facebook leaving my poor blog withering away.  Appropriate metaphor for a gardening blog is all I can say in my defense.  Those tiny effortless posts on Facebook of "today's garden surprise" allowed me to share the small, unremarkable events that delight me and keep me gardening.  Truth is, nothing major has really transpired out in my playground - no major weather events, no big projects or changes in design, not even a thorough application of compost.  Yet after eight years of Playin' Outside, I somehow find myself unable to stop posting and simply walk away.

It seems as if I've been waiting for something "noteworthy" to do a blog post.  Instead, I'm going to recreate some of the past year's delights here.  I sincerely hope you enjoy them.

Perhaps one significant change is my decision to move away from growing tropical milkweed, or at the very least, a renewed vow to cut it to the ground in September.  As it's naturalized to a degree, a lot of work would be needed to eradicate it entirely from the garden.   However, it does seem to encourage migrating Monarch butterflies to hang around and breed rather than continue their journey to Mexico for the winter.  If Central Texas gets a harsh winter, that new generation is then lost and the energy reserves the adults needed for migration were wasted in reproducing.  So here's to supporting the native Asclepias, a large and varied family.  They've come and gone with the seasons as long as the Monarchs have depended on them.  Go to Monarch Watch or any number of other online resources to find what's native to your region and start propagating those varieties.  
Ill fated Monarch cat on Asclepias curassavica
in November

Queen cat on Asclepias oenotheroides (Zizotes milkweed.)

Bees, butterflies, and the occasional bird continue to be the primary focus of my garden.  It's nice to have found a particular passion so that there are at least a few filters to my plant purchases.
The new Bumble house - "Beehenge"

The new Bumblebee house, dubbed "Beehenge" due to its stone enclosure, was finally installed in the garden after traveling around with me a bit as a teaching aid.  Can you see it in the photo above?  The entrance is almost dead center behind the clump of skullcap and guara.  The well thought out wooden structure was built by Nurturing Nature in the UK.  Stone enclosure not included ;-)  It features a flat, red, lucite lid under the wooden roof that allows observation of the nest without disturbing the bees and a wonderful flap door the bees actually learn to open.  Surrounding it with stones had several purposes.  It's intended to keep it warmer in winter, cooler in summer, and protected from elements.  The entrance faces the sun so it's warmed in the mornings.  And as bumbles are known to favor burrows left by rodents, the nest attempts to mimic that environment.  

And finally, a lifelong goal was achieved when my husband and I visited Charlottesville, VA.  I'm a bit of a history junkie, so wandering the grounds of Monticello was surprisingly moving.  I've seen that iconic view of the kitchen gardens below Mulberry Row a thousand times over the years, but standing on the rise above and taking my own version of the photo almost brought me to tears.  Weird, I know.  

Iconic view finally captured in person
We were also able to make the drive to Green Bank, WV, that takes you through a number of Civil War sites.  We were headed out to stay at the NRAO facility, and thought traveling the steep terrain through the mountain switchbacks was tough enough with a car and in beautiful, mild weather.  It certainly brought home how physically difficult those years must have been - beyond the emotional toll and regardless of the side for which you fought.  It's a sobering period of our national history, but what a beautiful part of our country!

Seneca Rocks, WV
 I'd love to hear what changes or delights the past year brought to your garden.  Please let me hear from you.

All material © 2008 - 2016 by Vicki Blachman for Playin' Outside.
 Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Purple Martin Party Time!

Travis Audubon hosted a Purple Martin Colony visit this past Saturday next to the historic home of Laura Joseph.  Laura started...