Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Today's Blooms

This time of year it's great to be a gardener in central Texas. The leopard frog in my pond has resumed his nightly serenade after a winter's rest, we're getting some much needed rain, and everything looks so fresh and healthy in the cooler weather. Yesterday I was talking to a plant supplier in Virginia who is still having to worry about the effects of snow and cold weather. I was telling him how we are trying to get plants started now so they can get a good start before the killing heat sets in.

I missed Bloom Day, so here's what was blooming in my garden on the ides of March ...

A few years ago, I found this small tulip at a local nursery. It's t. clusiana "Cynthia" and will naturalize here in Austin. Above are three pictures of the same plant; I'm trying to capture the wonderful yellow and deep pink of the blooms. The top photo is the closest, but it didn't show the pink as well as it was taken later in the day when the blooms had opened.

Colleen's Climber rose

Chandler strawberries

"Old Blush" rose - one of several started from cuttings last year and already looking like this!

Flowering quince - puts on a show just once a year then goes back into hiding

"Apple" pelargonium - scented geranium that smells just like Juicy Fruit gum

"Attar of Rose" pelargonium - one of the strongest rose scented geraniums

Lady Banks rose - this one was cut almost to the ground when repairing the fence, but she's coming back in style. (Plants teach me a lot about resilience and patience.)

Meyer Lemon - it makes just enough lemons each year for one batch of Lemon Ginger Marmalade using a recipe my mother-in-law gave me. This year, I modified the recipe and also made a second batch from those little clementine oranges and some chipotle chiles. Our"Mexican Mandarin Marmalade" was a huge hit!

Butterfly weed or Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) - the flowers attract butterflies and the leaves are a favorite food of the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies that migrate through central Texas

Mexican Lime - it's looking like we might have to make margaritas to use them all up

Mrs Oakley Fischer rose with friend

Dicentra ("Bleeding Heart")


"Peter's abutilon (Vesuvius?)

"Marilyn's Choice" abutilon

Bengal Tiger rose - profits from the sale of this rose go to a tiger preservation fund

Martha Gonzales rose

Mlle. Franziska Kruger rose


We attended the 20th birthday celebration and benefit at Eastside Cafe this past weekend. After seeing how vibrant and healthy their garden is, I was almost embarassed to show you mine. If you're in the Austin area, please do yourself the favor of seeing what they've managed to do with a small city plot. It's inspiring.

Hope you enjoyed our flowers. Not pictured are the Mutabilis rose and spirea that are putting on a show in the front yard. Also, we're hoping to have a major update on the rainwater harvesting soon. Check back in about a week. If we don't have any more rain delays, we can start collecting it. Gotta love the irony!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Plants with a Past

Driving to work the other day, I noticed something seemed out of place in a utility easement off to my right. Days passed before I had a reason to drive that way again; but knowing where to look, this time I could clearly see the green crowns of German iris plants scattered in profusion throughout the trenched and packed down right of way.

The New Digs
Yesterday, my husband and I went back and brought a few of them home to a pampered existence of amended soil, mulched surfaces, and regular watering. After surviving for over 50 years in neglect, they'll probably die from the shock. But it made me unbelievably happy to have this connection to the past scattered about my garden. These irises predictably bloom white or blue, but I don't really care which. They're in my garden to provide a feeling more than a flower.

That spot of town has been a cow pasture for as long as most people can recall, but the railroad used to run along there. The only memory of that now is the name of the street - "Railroad" - and a largely neglected historical sign along a park path. However, in the mid-1890's, our little town had a population of 250. The arrival of that railroad doubled the population. Though the railroad, too, is long gone, back then many of the town's homes were situated close to the commerce along the tracks. No telling what humble home was brightened by my plants' ancestors. And no telling how long they've survived there without any help from anyone.

"Peter's" abutilon (from Barton Sprgs. Nursery)

Source often determines what I will commonly call the plants I've started from cuttings - even when I know their botanical names. In my garden you'll find "Jeri's Llano Pink" (an unidentified antique rose from my friend Jeri's home on the Llano River), "Colleen's Climber" (found and shared by my friend Colleen Belk and later officially named for her), "Doug's Peach Iris" from my friend Doug's unbelievable cottage garden in Austin, "Lucinda's Hoja Santa" (started from an offshoot of my long time friend Lucinda's mother plant), and others.

Most of my shrimp plants were started from cuttings from the extension office demo garden. When I'm admiring the startling blue blooms on the Mexican salvia, I'm thinking of the first time I ever enjoyed the contrast of that color against its lime green foliage at Ila's house, then went home with precious cuttings wrapped in damp paper towel. Even lambs ears hold a memory for me of the day I first felt their soft leaves in the early 1970's and went home with a piece of the plant from Madalene Hill's herb garden in East Texas. It or its descendants have been in every single garden I've had since.

"Ila's" Mexican salvia

Many of our local nurseries propagate plants that become known by the gardener who first shared them or where they were originally found: "Marilyn's Choice" abutilon, "Peter's" abutilon, "schoolhouse" lily, the hugely successful "Martha Gonzales" rose, and the more recent "Peggy Martin" rose.

Schoolhouse (or Oxblood) Lily

When I walk through my yard, seeing these plants makes me feel connected to others, whether to dear friends who sent me home with cuttings, other gardeners with a plant I've admired and begged a piece of, or to unknown settlers who put a few irises on either side of a door to brighten the path. Let me know if there are "pass along plants" in your garden.

"Lucinda's" hoja santa

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Ongoing Saga of the Rain Tank

Every gardener I know sings the same tune this time of year - there's just not enough time and daylight to do everything we want or need to do. Amending soil, pruning, putting out transplants, cleaning up winter's leftovers - just the maintenance could overwhelm a fainthearted person. But we gardeners are a sturdy lot. Bring it on! We do all that and more! No wonder I sleep better this time of year .... And, I can't wail and moan about not having enough time to keep up. I look at other garden blogs (around midnight on nights there's not enough moonlight to garden by) and see the standard everyone else sets - they somehow manage to build and maintain amazing gardens, keep up with regular posts on absolutely breathtaking blogs, and probably look fabulous and sweat-free while getting it all done.
At my house, there's lots of sweat and incomplete tasks. Near the top of the to-do list is getting the rain tank hooked up before the rainy season has passed me by. Having the tank delivered before I was ready to hook it up was part of my plan. It forces this job to the top of the list when you see this 7 foot tall tank lurking around the corner of the house. My last post was about the day the tank was delivered, and today I'll cover the tasks we've gotten done so far.

Although I was sad to pronounce it dead and see it go, the oleander had developed a fatal virus that "burned" its leaves and left it lifeless. We'd been giving it lots of extra love and attention since moving into the house, but finally realized it was time. Not only that, it was right where we wanted to install the rain tank. It may have been lifeless above ground, but it had an amazing root system that required days to defeat.

With the oleander stump removed, we needed to provide a level pad on which to place the tank. This part of the yard slopes, so we decided to build a frame to keep the soil from washing away. How many of you ever bought a bag of "topsoil" only to wonder how anyone could bag and sell that awful stuff? Well, we found a perfect use for it. We used it to build up inside the frame. At about $1.20 for a half cubic foot - it's much cheaper than the $3.00 bags of pea gravel we are also using. We used the topsoil to build up to about an inch and a half from the top of our wooden frame, then topped off with the pea gravel and levelled it. We used bagged product rather than having a load delivered as it was easier for us old folks to manage the bags. Above, Brady checks the first layer out and pronounces it ready for the pea gravel. After pouring on the pea gravel, I smoothed it out and checked it with a level.

Next step is getting guttering installed. I've gotten bids on 4" and 6" guttering with screens and with the solid leaf guards.  Know ahead of time there will be some ongoing cleaning required with screens, but the cost is about half of the systems with solid guards. And, although smaller widths are available, 6" guttering is usually recommended to handle heavy downpours without loss. The "helmets" or "leaf shields" aren't entirely necessary when the water is just being used in landscape applications. They do cut down dramatically on the amount of gravel that is washed into the gutter, but the "first flush" pipe gives you an opportunity to get rid of most of what works its way towards the tank. It's a pipe installed in the downward flow of water from the gutter that must fill up before water can move on toward the collection tank. It has a removeable cap that allows you to drain the debris out from time to time, including gravel from a composite roof or bird poop or leaves and organic gunk that work their way into the system.

When I was taking the rainwater harvesting training, we were actually making some of the parts as they couldn't easily be purchased in the US - things like the transition piece from the rectangular guttering to round PVC piping for downspouts running into collection tanks. Australia is way ahead of the United States in this area. However, most guttering companies in Austin now carry prefabricated transitions in both metal and PVC made specifically for rainwater harvesting applications. All three companies I've contacted have done lots of rainwater projects and knew what I needed without me telling them. They also worked into their bids a plan for the possibility of adding additional barrels or tanks in the future. They've done this enough to learn it's addictive. How could saving money on water bills or having enough and better quality water for your plants be a bad thing?

By the way, if this size tank scares you, Corinne at Triple S says they also have smaller options:  a green tank that holds approx. 1164 gallons that's 53" tall and 86" wide, a green tank that holds 556 gallons that's 64" tall by 48" wide, and a green tank that holds 319 gallons that's 52" tall and 46" wide.  I mention the color "green" because the tanks are also made by another manufacturer in black.  The capacities and specs are slightly different.  She says to feel free to call her at 512.243.0679 if you need any other information.  And, don't hesitate to start with just a barrel.  Many cities, including Austin, have reduced cost rain barrels available.  Really, like I said, how can it be a bad thing - even on a smaller scale!  

Enough for today. I'm hoping to have this installed soon and start catching those pennies from heaven. That phrase has certainly taken on new meaning with frequent droughts and climate change, hasn't it? Austin has lots of gardening fairs, garden tours, and gardening seminars filling the calendar in March and April. Then it's time for Spring Fling! Have to remember to make time for playin' outside! Let me hear from you - what's pushing its way to the top of your to-do list?

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...