Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Peak Harvest

Warm breezes from the south.  Humid evenings with the fan blowing in the bedroom.  I linger outside at dusk, enjoying the rare perfectness of the temperature, which is neither hot nor cold, while staring at the climbing pea plants in the fading light.  Because of the sunny days, the peas are blooming, the broccoli and cauliflower are ready all at once, and the leafy greens, just days ago content to live quietly on the ground, suddenly shoot upwards into flowering stalks.

I could be describing summer in the mountains, or in the Northwest, or in New England, but, instead, this is late January in central Texas.  Just a month after the winter solstice, and just this side of our coldest (or, at least, most likely to be cold) time of the year, is the Bizarro Summer, when warm-on-the-heels-of-cold temperatures transform the garden.  If that all sounds a bit too sweet, then rest assured that, blissful as the evening air may be, this rapid transition from quiet-hunkered-down-in-the-cold garden to hellbent-on-reproducing garden is nothing if not totally annoying.

The moral of the late-January heat is always the same.  Don't wait.  Spend out.  Harvest early, harvest often, and don't worry about whether there will be anything left later in the season.

Yet, here I am again, with a row of lettuces growing into spiral towers, broccoli plants flowering yellow along the house, and four carefully-spaced, ginormous tat soi plants developing flower buds.  Not to mention the already-flowering arugula and its neighbor, the about-to-flower mustard.  While there are this-year specific reasons why I have ended up here – the greens were slow to gain size last fall because of a caterpillar population explosion, and the lasting cold weather at the start of the year made it seem that I had more time this year – the truth is that every year there are reasons to put off harvesting, and every year I end up in the same place, with the same row of spiral-towered lettuce plants, thinking the same thing.  Which is that next year I'm going to harvest earlier.  So why don't I?

One reason is that I am a saver.  In other words, I save my dessert for last.  Psychiatrists call it delaying gratification, I call it good to my future self.  Either way it's a sign of maturity and makes me a good worker and a good partner and good citizen of the earth.  If only this were 1850.  Here in modern times, it means that I am Most Likely to Miss Out because I am too busy planning and waiting and anticipating, while everybody else is using the right-turn-only lane to get ahead of the line.  But it's the journey, right?  Anyway, back in the garden, I'm good at preparing the soil for the season, which is important for later, and I've gotten better at thinning the seedlings, which also produces healthier plants later, but I suck at harvesting full-size plants at peak harvest time, which will leave nothing for later.  I mean, what about my future self?  And what if this moment now isn't quite yet the exact peak harvest time?

And that is the other reason that I struggle with peak-season harvest.  I want to get it exactly right.  I want to harvest the lettuce plant when it is full size but before it begins to spiral towards the sky.  I want to harvest the head of broccoli when it is as large as it is going to get but before the flower buds begin to swell.  Which is a little bit like playing blackjack with vegetables.  That almost-optimal head of broccoli could grow a bit bigger tomorrow, or it's flowers could swell toward flowering, depending on whether tomorrow morning is cloudy and cool or sunny and warm.  By mid-January, with so many plants in the garden in that almost-optimal state, a week or two of warm temperatures is disastrous, like a run of high cards being dealt into so many already-close-to-21 hands.  Plant after plant after plant crosses the threshold from vegetative into flowering.

So what's a procrastinating, time-limited gardener to do in the Bizarro Summer?

Harvest with abandon.  Those spiral lettuces are still delicious.  In my experience, lettuce doesn't get bitter until it actually flowers, which is coming soon, but isn't here yet, making this the perfect time to harvest bunches of lettuce at once and enjoy huge, sweet garden-lettuce salads.  This is what I will miss in the depths of the real summer.

Let some go.  Unlike the lettuces, the mustards and Asian greens get bitter as soon as they send up their flowering shoots.  A mustard-family plant grows as a rosette, forming its flowering buds on the ground, hidden within the youngest leaves, so that by the time it sends up a flowering stalk, the flowers are ready to go and the plant is fully in flowering mode, already diverting its sugars into the flowering stalk.  It can be tempting to Eat it all!, but I've ruined a few dinners that way.  A few bitter greens are okay, but last week, when I cooked an entire wok full of gone-to-flower bok choy leaves, the result was bitter, chewy, and work to eat – everything that a kid unhappily associates with eating her greens.  That is no way to end the season with greens that have been so delicious.  As much as I hate to loose those plants, once the leaves turn that waxy, greyer shade of green, the plant is lost to the flowers that are about to made.

In the case of my broccoli plants, I don't mind letting the third cuttings, and some of the later second cuttings, flower.  I find it nearly impossible to catch the third cutting stalks before they flower, given that each cutting matures faster than the one before, the third-cutting heads are small, and the bees love the flowers.

Stay ahead instead of fighting for what is already lost.  Or, as business majors say, don't base decisions on sunk costs.  Arugula, bok choy, tat soi, and broccoli are already gone.  Again, it is very tempting to Eat it all!, or to sort through the remaining plants and build creative meals out of the results.  But the spinach in the back garden is at its peak, as is the cilantro in the front.  Both will get in on this flowering trend in February if not harvested now, and I have limited time.  It makes more sense to enjoy spinach salads and cilantro pesto now, and then to move on to beets, chard, and parsley, than to fight with the mustard-family plants now, only to find that I missed out on the peak harvest for the spinach in the meantime.

Plan for next year.  Seriously, next year I'm going to get it right.  Harvest all bok choy by Christmas, all tat soi by New Year's, mustard by mid-January.  Plant more lettuce, and don't save it for later.  Etc.

And remember that this is what I do for fun.  I'd be just as happy to grow flowers for the bees, who are so grateful this time of year.  So why am I so upset when a few of the plants that I intended for food end up flowering instead?  Mustard flowers are actually quite pretty, so I might as well join the bees and enjoy the first sign of spring here in central Texas.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

June at the Greenbelt

The water is all but gone now, reduced in a matter of weeks from a flowing creek to a dry creek bed with a few muddy spots and murky pools, the largest and most lasting of which is the pond formed by the springs just downstream of Sculpture Falls.  The only place where a dog can get wet in the hot, dry years.  I was hoping that this wouldn't be one of those years, just as I did not welcome the return of record-breaking temperatures – I would've been happy to skip a year, or ten, in pursuit of the hottest June day ever – but at least we had the spring rains and, because of them, several weeks of (early) summer creek flow on Barton Creek.

Our wildflowers are adapted to this nonsense.  The spring bloomers, like Bluebonnets and wild mustard, are winter annuals that germinate in the fall, grow in the early spring, and bloom in late spring, completing their life cycle within the cool season.  The early summer bloomers, a mix of winter annuals like Indian Blanket and perennials like Winecup, similarly get their business of blooming done before the real heat of summer.  The fall bloomers, like Golden-Eye and Agalinis, grow in the spring, wait out the summer in near stasis, then bloom in the fall, once the heat of summer has passed.  And the few wildflowers remaining, the brave all-summer-long bloomers, take their cues from the weather as well, blooming sporadically from April to October, whenever we happen to get the rain.

So early June at the Greenbelt, with the water still running but not for much longer, was an ideal place to see wildflowers in bloom, a mix of annuals just this side of going to seed, perennial shrubs and vines flowering in the less stressful part of summer, and all-summer-long bloomers taking advantage of the moisture lingering in the ground around the creek.  Knowing that the water was waning, Lee and I headed to the upstream part of the Greenbelt trail to enjoy the end of the season.  Though it is counter-intuitive, Barton Creek dries up in its downstream stretches first, so when the creek bed is dry downstream of the Loop 360 overpass, water may still be flowing upstream of the Mopac overpass.  We started our walk even farther upstream, at the end-of-trail entrance, hiking down the long hill.  At the bottom of the hill, in an open field on the way to the uppermost falls, was a huge display of red and yellow and purple wildflowers.

Field of Indian Blanket, Mexican Hat, Brown-Eyed Susan, and Purple Horsemint

The dominant red and yellow flower in the field was Indian Blanket, a common Sunflower Family wildflower in Texas.  With yellow disc flowers (the center of the sunflower) that turn red as they bloom and red ray flowers (the part of the sunflower that looks like the petals) with yellow tips, the inflorescence of Indian Blanket looks like a red and yellow bulls-eye.  Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) is an annual that reseeds readily, forming huge colonies in open fields and along our roadways in the late spring.

Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)

The other red and yellow flower in the field was Mexican Hat, another common Sunflower Family wildflower.  The ray flowers of Mexican Hat are red with yellow and tend to droop downward, while the green to brown disc flowers form a tall column, giving the inflorescence a hat-like shape.  Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnaris) is a bushy, drought-tolerant biennial or perennial that grows on roadsides and in abandoned fields, blooming from April to July.

Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnaris)

The balance of yellow in the field of wildflowers was contributed by Brown-Eyed Susan.  Like Indian Blanket, Brown-Eyed Susan is annual in the Sunflower Family that forms huge, showy colonies in open, grassy areas.  The disc flowers of Brown-Eyed Susan are purple-brown while the ray flowers are yellow with a red-brown spot at the base of each and tend to droop downward.  Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) prefers sandy or limestone soils and blooms from April to July.

Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

The purple flowers in the field were those of Purple Horsemint, another common wildflower that is known for its large, picturesque colonies.  The pink to purple flowers are two-lipped and spotted, whorled together into a dense inflorescence of flowers and bracts (the leaves beneath each flower) that are also purple.  Purple Horsemint (Monarda citriodora) blooms from May to June, and its flowers turn more whitish-purple toward the end of the bloom.

Purple Horsemint (Monarda citriodora)

The uppermost falls, usually a quiet spot for hot cyclists, older couples, and happy dogs, was crowded with the young sunbathers that usually gather at Twin Falls, confirming that the creek was indeed drying up downstream.  We crossed the creek above the falls and headed downstream along the trail.  This shady section of the trail, sandwiched between the creek and a slope forest, was still cool and moist, hanging onto the last of spring.

Along the trail, American Beautyberry shrubs were in flower.  American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a large shrub that is common throughout the southeastern United States.  At the eastern edge of its range in central Texas, it is mainly found along streams and in moist bottomlands.  While the purple berries of Beautyberry are a stand-out feature of the Greenbelt trail in the fall, the bunches of tiny pink-purple flowers that appear on the shrubs in May and June are easier to miss.

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

Thoroughwort, a smaller shrub in the Sunflower family that tends to grow on the rocky hillsides above the trail, was also in bloom.  Thoroughwort (Ageratina havanensis) is a perennial shrub that blooms on and off all summer, its flowers suspended on branches that seem to grow straight from the rocks on the cliff side of the trail.  The leaves of Thoroughwort are deltoid, or arrow-shaped, and the flowers are white, grouped together into inflorescences that look like miniature white pom poms.

Thoroughwort (Ageratina havanensis)

On the creek side of the trail, growing at the water line along a deeper, slower section of the creek, Buttonbush was also in bloom.  Buttonbush is a large, many-branched shrub that grows along streams, lakes, and ponds, blooming in the summer.  The leaves of Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) are large and oval-shaped and the inflorescence is an off-white globe of flowers with long stamens that extend past the petals.  After flowering, the inflorescence dries into a brown ball of seeds ready to float downstream in the next flood.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Also growing close to the creek, tangled in shady patch of understory, was the Snapdragon Vine.  The shiny leaves of the Snapdragon Vine look like those of English Ivy, a cross between a triangle and a heart, while the flowers have five, fused petals that are light violet to dark purple with white centers.  Snapdragon Vine (Maurandya antirrhiniflora) grows on rocky, limestone soils of the southern Hill Country and blooms after rains from March to September.

Snapdragon Vine (Maurandya antirrhiniflora)

Farther downstream, after passing the two mini falls, the trail moved away from the creek into a flat, wooded-to-open floodplain where Texas Lantana (Lantana horrida) was blooming in half-shady places.  Texas Lantana is a tough, drought-tolerant shrub that grows all over Austin, blooming in yellow and red-orange flowers all summer long, rain or not.  Lantana has square, rough-to-prickery stems and a strong aroma that I associate with the heat of summer.  I have trouble enjoying Lantana because of its commonness and because it grows wild along the south side of my house, where I can't decide if it is a weed or a wildflower.  But its flowers, grouped into round clusters, are bright and striking, and the plants seem to thrive on blazing heat and baking drought, qualities that are hard not to appreciate.

Texas Lantana (Lantana horrida)

The upstream section of the Greenbelt was surprisingly crowded that day, especially for a weekday, with crowds of swimmers at each falls, however minor, again reminding us that the season was about to be over.  Eventually, Lee and I found a couple of quiet places to get into the water before reaching Sculpture Falls, where we crossed to the main trail on the other side of the creek and headed back upstream.  Before long, a shady, tree-lined section of the creek lured us back to the water, where I found, beneath the warm water, active springs of cold water, and, around the corner, a murky backwater section of the creek that was overgrown in Dodder.  Dodder (Cuscuta sp.) is a parasitic vine in the Morning Glory Family that twines its yellow stems around its host plant.

Dodder (Cuscuta sp.) growing on plants in the creek

While Dodder, with its non-photosynthetic yellow stems, represents the darker side of the twining habit, literally living off its host plants, the Purple Leatherflower, a climbing vine that is a rare treat to find growing in the understory along streams in our area, represents the refined side, a vine that would be just as welcome in a garden as in the woods.  Purple Leatherflower (Clematis pitcheri) has shiny, lobed leaves and thick, bell-shaped, purple flowers that appear in May and June.

Purple Leatherflower (Clematis pitcheri)

The trail on the east side of the creek was wider, higher above the creek, and more exposed to the afternoon sun than the trail on the west side had been.  In those drier conditions, Turk's Cap, a shrub in the Hibiscus Family, was blooming in the shade of cedar trees.  Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) is an herbaceous perennial that regrows from the ground each year, aggressively forming thick colonies in the shade of woods nears streams.  The flowers of Turk's Cap are bright red, with upright petals that remain half-closed and a column of fused stamens that rises above the petals.  The staminate column, also bright red, is decorated, on the sides, with the yellow ends of the stamens (male parts) and, on the top, the red stigmas (female parts) of the flower.  Turk's Cap is one of our all-summer-long bloomers, making flowers from June through October that turn into round, red fruits.

Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii)

Velvet-Leaf Mallow, another shrub in the Hibiscus Family, was also in bloom.  Velvet-Leaf Mallow (Allowissadula holoserica) is a woody perennial that grows on dry, rocky soils of the Edwards Plateau.  Velvet-Leaf Mallow has toothed, heart-shaped leaves with wooly margins and flowers with five orange-yellow petals.  Velvet-Leaf Mallow produces flowers all summer, providing food for butterflies.

Velvet-Leaf Mallow (Allowissadula holoserica)

As the trail neared its upstream end, we returned to the territory of heat-loving sunflowers.  Part way up the long hill to Scottish Woods, a colony of blooming Nerve-Ray gave me an excuse to stop for a photo break.  The inflorescence of Nerve-Ray looks something like that of Echinacea, with narrow, yellow ray flowers that are widely spaced around a reddish-brown sphere of disc flowers.  Nerve-Ray (Tetragonotheca texana) gets its genus name (tetragon-) from its four-sided involucre, the green, fused leaf beneath the inflorescence.  Nerve-Ray is a bushy, many-branched shrub that grows on rocky soil in the southern Hill Country, blooming from April to September.

Nerve-Ray (Tetragonotheca texana)

Growing closer to the ground, its stems mixed with grasses midway up the hill, was Zexmenia, another bright yellow sunflower.  Zexmenia (Wedelia texana) is a perennial shrub that is woody at its base with herbaceous stems that hold the yellow, Cosmos-like flowers high above the low-growing plant.  Zexmenia blooms from May to September and is a host to native butterflies.

Zexmenia (Wedelia texana)

At the top of the hill we walked back into the city, happy for the swim but sad that the season was ending.  Though I have been in Austin for fifteen years, I still have to remind myself that "summer," in the up-north sense of summer as the peak growing season for plants, is a broken season in central Texas.  Summer begins in April, is suspended in June, resumes in September, and ends in October.  We are currently suspended, stranded in a three-month hiatus from summer.  Annual plants are done for the year and the perennials are in survival mode, waiting until ground-soaking rains break the hiatus.  Which could happen next week or in October.

I am, as usual, a bit stunned to be here.  Like a gambler who always thinks that this round will be the one, I am perpetually convinced that this summer will be the one that isn't broken, the one that is kept whole, or is at least extended a month or two, by summer thunderstorms.  It has happened before.  But I've been here long enough to expect nothing less than blazing heat.  So, as I arrive here yet again, I have to appreciate the native wildflowers and their ability to make a life between, before, around, or straight through, our broken summers.  One of these years, I'm going to figure out how to follow their lead.  Until then, here's to enjoying the water while it lasts.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mulching for (No) Rain

Since naturalizing in central Texas, I have become obsessed with rain – if we will get any, when we will get any, and, if so, how much we will get.  I have also developed a superstition about how to not to screw up our chances for rain.  It started with the simple and annoying observation that, if the rain chances for a given day were in the middle of the road, say 50% chance of thunderstorms, and my plants needed to be watered, the chances for rain would plummet to about 5% the minute that I decided not to water because rain was on the way.  So I learned, in my early years of Austin gardening, that if the soil was dry and the rain chances were anything less than "flash flood warning starting at noon today," I had better water.  Because to be prepared for no rain was the best way to encourage those middling chances of rain.

Using the same logic, the best way to attract a rainy season to town is to be prepared for weeks of heat and drought.  Which means that my job in the early summer, after the tomato, pepper, eggplant, and okra plants of my hot-season garden have established, is to prepare the garden for the onslaught of summer drought.  Because to be prepared for early, baking heat is the best way to bring thunderstorms to May and June, which can be the rainiest months of the year here in Austin, where a "rainy season" can happen at any time of year, for any number of weeks, or can just as easily disappear, at any time, for any number of months.

I prepare for drought by mulching, or covering the garden soil with a thick layer of leaves, stems, or wood chips.  I look forward to mulching day through March and April, during the seed planting, transplanting, daily watering, and weeding, because mulching day is like graduation day for my plants.  After mulching I still love them and care for them, but my role is changed.  If the rains don't come, I water twice a week, in the dark of the night, by turning on a soaker hose and disappearing into the climate-controlled house while a timer runs.  If the rains do come, then I am really not needed in the garden except to harvest fruits, which my plants make all on their own, in the bright light of Texas summer.  So I love the tucked-in and ready-to-take-care-of-itself look that the garden has just after it has been mulched.

The mulching material that I use varies depending on the season, the type of garden bed, and what I have on hand.  For establishing new garden beds, which requires a deep mat of heavy mulch to kill the weeds and limit the unkillable Bermuda grass, so that its greenery is reduced and its roots are easily dig-out-able, I use lawn clippings.  Lawn clippings are ugly and moldy, but, over time, as the layers pile on, they make an effective barrier against weeds that eventually breaks down into compost, improving the future garden soil.  More importantly, the depth and thickness of a mat of lawn clippings ensures that the soil beneath is heavily insulated from the heat and dry of the air above, creating a moist, cozy environment for the bacteria, fungi, and insects of the soil, who in turn are the real creators of that future garden soil.

On my garden pathways and around my perennials, I use cedar mulch.  It's inexpensive and attractive, and I like the smell.  As a big fan of trees being left standing, I do worry about using wood mulches, but as far as I can tell, the cedar mulch made by Austin Wood Recycling is made by shredding cedar (Juniperus ashei) trees that are cleared from overgrown land.  Given that cedar trees are abundant to the point of being invasive in central Texas, I don't mind the idea of those trees being torn down and shredded for mulch, though I do wish they were being torn down to make room for a native grassland instead of a housing development.  In any case, cedar mulch keeps my front-yard garden looking neat around the edges and it is long-lasting.  The only downside to cedar mulch is that it is as attractive to the neighborhood cats as it is to me.  Apparently, if you're a cat, wild or allowed to roam, to whom my street is home, then my garden is the place to shit.  When I lost a couple of baby plants to an over-exuberant feline digger this spring, I began to reconsider: maybe it's time to switch to gravel mulch for the perennial beds.

In the winter, or when I have them, I use fallen leaves.  My backyard produces a good pile of leaves every December, a mix of post oak, cedar elm, and hackberry.  Still, I always think that I could use a lot more leaves, because of which I have a mental map of whose lawns along my usual driving routes have the best mix of leaves and often find myself, around the end of the year, wondering about the contents of other people's yard-waste bags.  I pile the raked leaves around my fall greens, just after they've passed the baby greens stage, or around the broccoli-family transplants after they have established.  I usually save the last raking of the season, the January (or, this year, February) leaf pile, to be used at the end of the hot season, to be the mulch-on-top-of-the-mulch that puts the garden to bed for the hottest months of the year.

My favorite mulch, the mulch that I use for my hot-season vegetable garden, is alfalfa hay.  Alfalfa isn't technically a hay, because alfalfa itself is not a grass but a broad-leafed plant in the Pea Family, but, because it comes in heavy bales and is called "hay" by horse people, I think of it as alfalfa hay.  But the fact that it is not hay is actually quite important to my garden.  The first hay that I tried to use as mulch for my community garden plot, in my first summer as a Texas gardener, was grass hay.  Where I grew up, in western Oregon, grass hay was common stuff, so I was surprised when nobody in Austin had heard of grass hay.  Instead, I was directed to something called "coastal hay," which seemed to be the Texas equivalent of grass hay.  I found the coastal hay to be expensive and crappy compared to the grass hay that I had known, but I put it on my garden anyway.  My plants didn't die that year, but they didn't thrive either, and it took the soil a couple of seasons to get back to what it had been.

During which time I learned a couple of things about hay.  First, it turns out that the Willamette Valley of Oregon is the world center of grass seed production.  Long, rainy, mild springs produce the best grass hay in the world with minimal chemical input.  So my views on hay quality and availability are heavily skewed by memories of hauling in bales of hay from the neighbor's field in June and feeding fine-stemmed, sweet-smelling flakes of grass hay to the horses all winter.  Second, and more importantly, Texas coastal hay is heavily sprayed with broad-leafed herbicides, which are poisonous to garden plants.  The moral of the story is that coastal hay is poison for your garden.

Once I was aware of the perils of using true hay in Texas, I switched to alfalfa, which worked so well that it has become a yearly ritual to go to the farm supply store to buy a couple of bales.  At the end of April, once the okra has been thinned, and the beds have been weeded one final time, and the soaker hoses are in place, I tear apart flakes of alfalfa and stuff handfuls of the scratchy stems between my plants, creating a thick, unbroken layer of mulch.  If I am lucky, thunderstorms follow mulching day, and the heavy rains seal the alfalfa into place like a heavy, woven crust over the garden.  Alfalfa mulch stays in place, through rain or shine, better than any other mulch I have used, and for that alone it is a great mulching material.  But that is just the beginning of its utility.  Alfalfa is also perfect for my hot-season garden in that it lasts all season but, after several months on the soil, breaks down just as readily.  In fact, I have found that if I cover the alfalfa with a layer of leaves as I remove the spent garden plants in August, in effect mulching the mulch, then, when the fall rains come, the alfalfa beneath the leaf mulch will compost quickly, largely disappearing into the soil by the time of fall planting.

When alfalfa breaks down into the soil, it feeds the soil.  This is true of all mulches – except for gravel mulch, of course, unless you think in geologic time – they eventually break down and add organic matter and nutrition to the soil.  But, while shredded wood can actually rob the soil, temporarily, of nutrients, and dead leaves add mainly micronutrients and humic acid to the soil, alfalfa is high in nitrogen, which is a primary soil nutrient needed by plants.  In fact, "alfalfa meal" is often one of the first ingredients in organic fertilizers, providing the nitrogen part of the N-P-K kick. And that is the real reason, aside from the satisfaction of heaving a bale of hay, that I love to use alfalfa to mulch my summer garden.  Every time I buy a bale of alfalfa, I feel clever knowing that this year's mulch is also next year's fertilizer.

Here is the final secret about mulching that the rain gods don't need to know:  To mulch is also to prepare the garden for a rainy summer.  Just as a thick layer of mulch protects the soil from evaporation, it also protects the soil from flooding.  In the midst of a downpour, water reaches the garden bed more gently, only after flowing around and through the many layers of leaves and stems that make up the mulch, so the soil beneath is much less likely to be carried away.  Plus, mulch reduces splashing, so that the undersides of the leaves of my eggplant, tomato, pepper, okra, and basil plants don't get coated in mud during a storm.  Because of this, the plants are less prone to the fungal diseases that ride around in mud splashes, and they stay cleaner.

So every season I mulch, in preparation for heat and drought, but also in hopes of a rainy season.  I mulch to protect the soil this season, to improve the soil next season, and to feed the soil the season after next.  I mulch because no other garden practice is so cheap and easy, with so many benefits to the soil.  The soil that is the basis of this entire operation.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

April Wildflowers

The longer I live in Texas, the shorter the springs seem to get.  One moment the trees are bare and I'm appreciating the shapes of their branches against the blue skies of early February, noticing with alarm that the elms and ashes are already glowing in yellow-green, getting ready to flower, and, seemingly, the next moment I'm worried about keeping the back door closed between trips to the garden because the air conditioner is running and summer is here.  Already.  Again.

Luckily, for some sense of perspective, I take pictures.  Recently I uploaded a huge batch of photos onto the computer and then watched the "last import" as a slide show on super slow, ten seconds per picture, while listening to Fleetwood Mac's Over My Head on repeat on the headphones, because ever since catching a clip of that song on a late-night infomercial for the Midnight Special DVD collection, I can't get it out of my head.  Not to mention that Over My Head, the sentiments of it, of falling for a guy that's wrong for you but doing it anyway, because it sure feels nice, well, that about summarizes my feelings for the Austin summer after fifteen years of living here.  I know it's going to hurt me yet I am still hopeful that this year will be the one, the rainy summer when June is defined by thunderstorms, the tomatoes produce into July, the creeks run into August, and the Greenbelt is the seven-mile water park that it can be.  You can take me to that paradise anytime.

So, anyway, as I was watching those pictures, one at a time, all 134 of them, I realized that spring, though quick, was actually a process, not the overnight event that it felt like.  Even more amazingly, I was there.  I was hiking at the Greenbelt with Lee in late January when the red buckeyes leafed out even earlier that usual, and I was there again in February to notice the creep of green into the ground-level of the landscape, as the winter annuals and grasses emerged through the leaf layer.  I was there in March when the backyard colony of Spiderworts bloomed in purple and blue, I was out on the trail in the midst of this year's bluebonnet season, and I was back at the Greenbelt to see the green leap upward as the grasses flowered in blue and the vines and shrubs and trees leafed out.

Spiderworts (Tradescantia sp.) in the backyard

Then April arrived and, with it, the transition to summer.  Days got hot, nights got humid, and the end loomed near.  I realized that I ought to get outside into the last days of spring, to record the diversity of this year's wildflowers, before the ovens turned on.  Last April I found the best trail-side wildflower viewing at McKinney Falls State Park, where Lee and I hiked the Homestead Trail and saw many spring wildflowers.  So this April we returned to McKinney Falls, this time to check out the wildflowers along the Onion Creek Trail.

We walked counterclockwise from the parking lot by the Upper Falls.  The first section of the trail followed the floodplain of Onion Creek, where a mix of tall trees, mostly pecan, cedar elm, hackberry, and, adjacent to the creek, bald cypress and sycamore, shaded the trail.  Because of the shade, the understory was patchy, a mix of leafy, open forest floor and shade-tolerant perennials and shrubs.  The most common wildflower along that section of trail was Blue Curls.  In my thinking, Blue Curls is the shady-places wildflower of April in the Austin area, but I may be biased by so many hours spent on the Greenbelt Trail, where Blue Curls is a major player each spring.

Blue Curls (Phacelia congesta)

Blue Curls is easily recognized by its curling inflorescences of many blue, five-petal flowers accented by long, yellow-tipped stamens.  The inflorescence of Blue Curls is known as a "scorpioid cyme" – scorpioid for the curling, scorpion's-tail shape and cyme for the type of inflorescence (group of flowers) where the terminal, or end, flower blooms first.  Blue Curls (Phacelia congesta) is in the Hydrophyllaceae Family, a surprise to me given that the scorpioid cyme is a hallmark of the Boraginaceae, or Borage Family.  But my botanical instincts proved to be correct when I looked up the Hydrophyllaceae and discovered that it is one of those contested plant families that is thought to be either a subfamily of or closely related to the Boraginaceae.  Blue Curls, borage or not, is a striking wildflower that is common throughout the Hill Country, blooming blue from March to May.

A relative of Blue Curls, which also blooms blue in the spring in shady spots in central Texas, is Baby Blue Eyes.  The single flowers of Baby Blue Eyes are light blue to purple with white centers, and each of the five petals is has a rounded notch.  Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophilia phacelioides) is a winter annual that grows in shady woodlands, canyons, and streamsides, blooming March to May.

Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophilia phacelioides)

Soft-Hair Marbleseed, a Borage Family plant that also has a scorpioid cyme, was blooming in a couple of the sunnier places along the first stretch of trail.  Each flower of Soft-Hair Marbleseed (Onosmodium bejariense) is white and tubular, with a spire-like tip.  Soft-Hair Marbleseed grows in open woodlands and on roadsides in the southeastern part of the Hill Country and blooms in March and April.

Soft-Hair Marbleseed (Onosmodium bejariense)

Another of the wildflowers that I noticed along the Onion Creek section of the trail was a rare treat, the Scarlet Leatherflower.  The unique, vase-shaped pink flowers of the Scarlet Leatherflower grow on a vine with asymmetric leaves that, if not for the lobe on one side that makes each leaf asymmetric, would be heart-shaped.  Scarlet Leatherflower (Clematis texensis) is a uncommon vine that grows over cliffs and shrubs in shady areas near streams in our area.   In fact, as a Hill Country endemic, ours is the only area in the world where it grows, blooming in its striking flowers April through June.

Scarlet Leatherflower (Clematis texensis)

One of the understory shrubs, Wafer Ash, was also in bloom, nearing the end of its flowering season.  Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifoliata) grows as a shrub to small tree in shady, woodland areas in central Texas.  It is commonly found growing underneath the mix of pecan, cedar elm, hackberry, and Spanish oak trees that grow along our waterways.  Its Latin species name, trifoliata, refers to its leaves-of-three, which often lead hikers to fear that it is Poison Ivy.  The leaves of Wafer Ash can be distinguished from those of Poison Ivy by the lack of notches in the leaflets.  While Poison Ivy has notched leaflets, the three leaflets that make up a Wafer Ash leaf are smooth, non-notched ovals.  The common name of the shrub refers to the thin, wafer-like fruits (actually samaras, like those of elm trees) that form after the flowers fade in late spring.

Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifoliata)

Filling out the ground layer of the understory were colonies of False Day Flower.  When I mentioned earlier that, in March, I was there to see the green leap upward as the grasses flowered in blue what I really meant is that I was there to see the huge colonies of False Day Flower form flowering shoots and bloom.  If Blue Curls is my shady-places wildflower of April, then False Day Flower is my shady-places wildflower of March, because, though it is botanically inaccurate to say that the grasses flowered in blue, that is what it feels like in March along the streams of the Hill Country.   False Day Flower (Tinantia anomala) is a monocot, which is why it has grass-like leaves, but it is not a grass; instead it is a relative of the spiderworts that grow in my backyard.  Its flowers are blue, with two petals and three tufted upper stamens that look like two eyes and a nose.  False Day Flower is a winter annual that germinates in the fall, grows through the winter, and leaps into flower in the early spring, forming large colonies of what look like blue-flowered grasses along waterways and on moist, shaded slopes.  False Day Flower blooms from March to May.

Colony of False Day Flowers (Tinantia anomala)

False Day Flower (Tinantia anomala)

About a third of the way around the loop, the trail climbed away from Onion Creek onto higher land above the floodplain and the taller, eastern-forest trees of the bottomland gave way to live oak, mesquite, and cedar (Ashe juniper).  Along this dryer section of trail, woodland was interspersed with open fields populated by grasses, wildflowers, and cacti.

The abundant cactus in the grassy breaks was the Texas Prickly Pear, which was blooming in showy yellow flowers, some of which had orange-tinted centers.  Texas Prickly Pear (Optunia engelmannii var. linheimeri) is common in fields and pastures of central and south Texas, where it grows aggressively, forming wide and tall thickets of spiny cactus pads.  To ranchers, it is a pest, but to wildlife, it is a food source.  The flowers are especially important to native bees, but they must also be a great nectar source for a variety of insects because whenever I find a Prickly Pear in bloom and look into the flowers, I find an array of flies, bees, and beetles feverishly chomping away.  Birds and animals eat the red fruit, called tunas, that form in the late summer.  Humans can eat the tunas as well, but be forewarned that the fruit, just like the cactus pads of the Texas Prickly Pear, have tufts of miniature, barbed spines, called glochids, that are hard to see and even harder to remove from your skin once attached.  Texas Prickly Pear blooms in the spring.

Texas Prickly Pear (Optunia engelmannii var. linheimeri)

The open, sunny fields between the woodlands were filled with wildflowers, some that I've written about recently, like Prairie Verbena (Verbena bipinnatifida) and Texas Star (Lindheimera texana), some that I saw last year on the Homestead Trail, like Prairie Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) and Engelmann's Daisy (Engelmannia peristenia), and some that I haven't yet had the chance to document, like Standing Winecup.  Of all the wildflowers in bloom, Standing Winecup was the stand out, blooming in bright magenta with tall flowers elevated above the sea of green grasses, cacti, and shrubs.

Prickly Pear, False Day Flower, Winecup, and Indian Blanket

Standing Winecap (Callirhoe digitata) is one of the poppy mallows of our area, a relative of hibiscus and Turk's Cap.  Standing Winecap is a drought-tolerant perennial that grows in fields and open woods, preferring rocky, dry soils, and blooms from April to June.  Like other Mallow Family plants, the stamens and pistil of Standing Winecap are fused into a single column in the center of the flower, the petals of which can be reddish-purple, dark purple, or white.

Standing Winecap (Callirhoe digitata)

The flowers of Indian Blanket, red and yellow in co-centric circles like a floral bull's eye, also stood out in the green landscape.  Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) is one of the famous and popular wildflowers of central Texas because it grows happily along our highways and in open grassy areas throughout central and western Texas.  Indian Blanket is heat- and drought-tolerant and reseeds easily, established large, dense colonies in areas with limestone soils and good drainage.  The flowers of Indian Blanket, on the plants from April through June, are important to native bees.

Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)

Brown-Eyed Susan, like Indian Blanket, is a Sunflower Family plant that also establishes large, showy colonies in open fields or woodland breaks with sandy or well-draining soil.  The ray flowers (the part of the sunflower inflorescence that looks like the petals) of Brown-Eyed Susan are yellow with a red-brown spot at the base and tend to droop downward.  The disc flowers at the center of the inflorescence are packed tightly together to form a purple-brown cone.  The flowers of Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) provide nectar for butterflies and bees, and the seeds are food for birds.  Brown-Eyed Susan is an annual to short-lived perennial that blooms April to June.

Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Yarrow, a wildflower that is common throughout North America, is a perennial with ferny, lacy leaves that grows as a rosette in the early spring before producing tall flowering stalks in the spring.  Each flowering stalk holds many white clusters of flowers that bloom from March to June.  Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is common where soils are disturbed, preferring partial shade such as at the edge of a woodland.  Yarrow flowers provide nectar to native bees.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

The blue-purple with white flowers of Mealy Sage were also starting to bloom along the trail.  Mealy Sage (Salvia farinacea) gets its name from the white-hairy sepals that cover the flowers before they bloom, giving the flower stalks a fuzzy (or mealy?) look.  Mealy Sage is a drought-tolerant perennial that prefers sunny locations with limestone soils, making it a good match for central Texas.  Mealy Sage blooms in April and May, or after summer rains, providing nectar for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

Mealy Sage (Salvia farinacea)

A few huge pink-violet blooms of Texas Thistle stood on tall stems above the mass of grasses and spring wildflowers.  Texas Thistle, a drought-tolerant biennial, grows in dry fields and roadsides throughout the state.  Though often viewed as a weed, Texas Thistle (Cirsium texanum) is an important nectar source, providing food for butterflies, bees, and bumblebees, and its seeds are eaten by birds.  Texas Thistle blooms from April to July.

Texas Thistle (Cirsium texanum)

Bull Nettle is another wildflower that stands out in a crowd.  With large, hairy, lobed leaves and spiny stems, Bull Nettle (Cnidoscolus texanus) looks intimidating, as it should, given that the whole plant is covered in stinging hairs that cause a burning rash when touched.  The bright white, star-shaped flowers only make the plant more noticeable in the spring.  Bull Nettle is a common perennial that tolerates the heat and drought of central Texas, blooming into the summer.

Bull Nettle (Cnidoscolus texanus)

The last section of the trail looped back to the Upper Falls.  For Lee and me, the best part of visiting the park is walking between the falls, enjoying the huge Bald Cypress trees along the creek and scrambling across the volcanic rock on either side of the Lower Falls.  In between the falls, growing out of a rocky outcrop, I found another lovely wildflower blooming.  Greenthread, a Sunflower Family annual that is named for its narrow-leaved foliage, blooms in bright yellow from April to June.  Greenthread (Thelesperma filifolium) prefers dry, sandy or gravely soils and provides nectar for butterflies.  I think this was my best picture of the day.

Greenthread (Thelesperma filifolium)

In the canyon along Onion Creek, in between the falls, a population of Rough-Leaf Dogwood trees grows.  Dogwood trees are rare in central Texas, limited to shady bottomlands where water is year-round and taller trees, like the old Bald Cypress along Onion Creek, provide shade.  In other words, the dogwoods in Texas are a relic of a wetter time, southern outliers of trees that, in these times, are found mainly in eastern or western forests, not in the dry middle of the continent.  Yet we have a population of Rough-Leaf Dogwood (Cornus drummondii) right here at McKinney Falls, so I am always happy to see them.  I was especially pleased on this visit because the small trees were blooming.  The leaves of Rough-Leaf Dogwood are oval-shaped and rough to the touch, with wavy edges and parallel veins.  Their white flowers are cross-shaped, with four petals, and are clustered together into large inflorescences.  The Rough-Leaf Dogwoods bloom in April and May.

Rough-Leaf Dogwood (Cornus drummondii)

We ended our hike at the field across from the parking lot, where the April wildflowers had turned the open space into a sea of yellow sunflowers punctuated by the red of Indian Blanket, the blue of Texas Bluebonnet, and a few tall, white flowers.  The white flowers that stood above the rest on prickly, blue-green foliage belonged to White Prickly Poppy (Argemone albiflora), a drought-tolerant wildflower that is common in abandoned fields and roadsides in central Texas.  With its prickly growth habit and seeds that are toxic, White Prickly Poppy is regarded as weed, but its flowers are as beautiful as those of any domestic poppy and provide nectar for bees and beetles.

White Prickly Poppy (Argemone albiflora)

Spring came early this year and, with it, the sense that summer was never far behind.  Yet by mid-April, it felt like we were granted an extension, a few more weeks of the glorious, summer-up-north weather that we call spring.  I know that the real heat is just around the corner, but I also know that, counter to my instincts, this is not the time of year to think ahead.  These are the sunny days to enjoy.  But, still, I am hopeful that this will be the year that the rains continue, the year that the drought is lifted, the year that I get to write about summer wildflowers.  I know that it is foolish to place my hopes on the Texas summer.  But it sure feels nice.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Snake Trail

In the southeast corner of Travis County, across the highway from the high school where I used to teach, hidden in the back of a quiet metro park that is mostly used for its baseball fields, is a hiking trail.  I am a fan of this hiking trail, because it is quiet and hidden and a place that I discovered, not in a hiking book or by word of mouth, but simply by stumbling into it.  This trail is also on my short list of places to hike on the weekend because it is close to home, a twenty-minute drive from east Austin, it is about three miles long, a good length for a midday walk, and it is a loop where, if walked in the clockwise direction, the best part of the trail, the shady, hilly woodland section featuring several cedar-log wooden bridges, is the last part of the trail.

The "primitive trail" at Southeast Metropolitan Park is a young trail in a new park.  What this means in practical terms is that trail itself was recently cut into the landscape, creating an ecological disturbance.  So walking the trail is like walking through a demonstration of what secondary succession looks like in central Texas, and the sunny parts of the trail are flanked on either side by dense stands of annual plants, a mix of native wildflowers, non-native invasives, and enormous, weedy sunflower relatives – think of the B-movie version of the many mutant offspring of a dandelion and a thistle.  To me, this is a plant-viewing trail, a place where I have seen many fall wildflowers, where I hope to return to see many spring wildflowers, and where I don't mind wading through overgrown sections of trail to discover a new plant or two.

To Lee, who likes to hike in his Tevas and is along for the walk rather than the botany lesson, wading through the undergrowth is less charming.  There is a reason why this trail isn't overrun with people, he reminded me as we made our way down a muddy section of trail last Saturday.  In truth, many sections of the trail were muddy, still sticky from recent rains, and our shoes become caked with heavy clay that had to be scraped off periodically.  And the reason, to Lee's thinking, that the trail is not much used – because it is an east-side trail – actually refers to a few of the less-appealing features of the trail, like the outstanding views of industrial smokestacks along the new toll road, the stench of the upstream waste-water treatment plant that sometimes accompanies the hike, and the tendency for the trail to be overgrown with weeds of terrifying sizes.  So, when I suggested that we go for a walk at "the place by the school," Lee responded with, "You mean the stinky place?"

This time, I had a brilliant counter-argument:  lots of wildflowers and no hipsters.  Last Saturday was the last Saturday of spring break, which, in Austin, means the last Saturday of SXSW.  Leaving the house without running into annoying packs of hipsters was near impossible.  Crossing downtown and stepping foot onto the popular and famous Greenbelt Trail were out of the question.  But it was a sunny, warm day and I wasn't going to let 'South By' keep me from walking in the woods.  So we headed east, and I was right about both of my predictions.  We didn't run into any hipsters, in fact, we didn't pass anyone on the trail.  And the wildflowers were amazing, blooming in yellow and blue all along the trail.

The majority of yellow blooms were on huge stands of Annual Bastard Cabbage.  From the name alone, it is clear that Annual Bastard Cabbage (Rapistrum rugosum) is not a well-loved plant.  An introduced species from Eurasia and northern Africa, Bastard Cabbage is an aggressive weed that quickly colonizes sunny, disturbed soils along roads, fields, and waterways.  In Texas, Bastard Cabbage is classified as a "terrestrial noxious weed" because of its ability to outcompete the native wildflowers during their winter growth season, forming dense single-species stands.  Since learning to recognize Annual Bastard Cabbage – I didn't used to notice it much, thinking it was just a wild mustard – I've realized just how common this plant is around Austin, turning our roadsides lemon yellow.  From a distance, the blooms look like an Impressionist painting, so many dots of pastel yellow fading into the horizon.  Up close, the plant is a leggy, weedy looking mustard, with many cross-shaped, four petaled flowers and even more seed pods.

Annual Bastard Cabbage (Rapistrum rugosum)

The dominant blue-flowered plant along the trail was the Texas Bluebonnet, a wildflower that is both native and very well-loved.  Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) thrives in sunny places with disturbed soils, like abandoned fields, roadsides, or along a young trail.

Texas Bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis)

Texas Bluebonnet and Annual Bastard Cabbage were, by far, the most abundant wildflowers in bloom along the trail.  Both are winter annuals, or single-season plants that germinate in the fall, grow as leafy rosettes through the winter, and bolt and bloom in the spring.  Another native winter annual, Lindheimer Daisy (Lindheimera texana), was also in bloom, in bright, sunflower yellow.  Lindheimer Daisy grows in sunny, grassy areas and blooms in the spring, from March to May.

Lindheimer Daisy (Lindheimera texana)

The salmon-orange blooms of Scarlet Pimpernel, also a winter annual, were visible in the greenery at the side of the trail.  Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), a native to Canada that has expanded its range throughout the United States, grows low to the ground in moist areas.

Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)

In addition to the winter annuals, a few perennial wildflowers were also beginning to bloom along the primitive trail.  Wild Garlic (Allium drummondii), a perennial that regrows from underground bulbs each spring, forms large colonies in open grassy areas.  Wild Garlic is a native, edible plant that blooms in white to pink wildflowers in the spring.

Wild Garlic (Allium drummondii)

Prairie Verbena is a native perennial that also grows in open grassy areas.  Prairie Verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida) is a long-season bloomer that brings purple to our roadsides and fields, rain permitting, from March through October.

Prairie Verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida)

So, despite the muddy trail, the outing was a success:
outside √
in the woods √
lots of wildflowers √
no hipsters √
no snakes ?

Well, it was a success until we encountered the snake.  Usually, snake encounters are cause for excitement of the Quick, grab the camera sort.  But as I came to a full stop in the trail and watched this snake slither into the undergrowth, I realized that there was something wrong with its tail, which was bent up perpendicular to the rest of its body.  Then I realized that the bent-up tail was actually a rattle, which meant that I was watching a rattlesnake cross the trail, and I lowered the camera and ceased to move.  The snake was short, only two or three feet long, and fat, looking like it just ate something.  Once the snake had crossed the trail and was hidden under a carpet of spring leaves, only visible from its rattle on one end and its darting black tongue on the other, it stopped moving.  Lee tried to take a picture from a distance then we hurried by the snake, making a respectful arc around its rattle end.

And then we continued down the overgrown trail, wading periodically through dense stands of grasses and enormous, leafy weeds.  In other words, we, the only humans on the trail, were wading through miles of prime snake habitat.  I kept my eyes peeled on the trail a few yards ahead while Lee began seriously regretting his decision to wear open-toed shoes.  What would we do if one of us did get bit by a snake? he began to wonder aloud.  I tried to be the rational one, pointing out how this was my first rattlesnake sighting in many years of hiking in central Texas and how the snake wasn't aggressive, in fact was simply trying to hide from us.  In truth, my legs were feeling very bare as I brushed through all that post-spring-rains growth.  Luckily, the most overgrown parts of the trail were soon behind us, and my focus returned to taking pictures of all the blue and yellow wildflowers that were around every corner.

The last part of the trail, which passed through a shady cedar woodland, was wide and clear, free of a leafy understory.  Soon we were back on the gravel trail leading to the car, relaxed and joking about our terrifying snake sighting.  If the rains continue, I want to return to the trail to see the next wave of wildflowers, the late-spring bloomers.  Lee swears he won't return without proper shoes and a good whacking stick.  My task, between now and then, is to figure out how to effectively counter-respond when Lee says, after I suggest that we go for a hike at the place by the school, You mean the snake place?