Friday, October 29, 2010

Change of Seasons

By my way of looking at things, we have two seasons in Austin: the hot season and the cool season. 

The hot season is the constant season.  Constant heat, constant humidity, constant sun, and constant south winds bringing warm, moist air from the Gulf.  Which is not to say that we don't experience anything but sunny days in the hot season, or that temperatures do not change, but that, even on the rainiest, coolest hot-season day, the sun is always close, the day is always long, and the lowest temperature of the day always falls somewhere in the mild range.  As someone who dislikes being cold, I am comforted by the hot season, even as I complain of the heat, because I know that I never have to worry about being too cold.  Through storm and drought, that is the guarantee of the hot season - that I will never find myself wishing that I had brought a jacket.

The cool season is the season of change.  In fact, the cool season is so characterized by change that I sometimes say, We have two seasons in Austin: the hot season and the variable season.  The cool season guarantees nothing but shorter days.  Winds shift in a matter of hours, changing the temperature and the humidity just as quickly.  Highs in the 80's may turn into lows in the 20's in the same day.  A day in December is just as likely to be warm, sunny, and mild as it is to be cold, dry, and bitter.  And the cold of the cool season is real, despite the Austin tendency to say that it is always warm here.  Anyone who has lived here without heat knows that, when it is cold, it is the dry, piercing cold of the Midwest, carried southward on an arctic front.  But the cold never lasts for long, because change is the only constant of the cool season.

When I first moved here from the Northwest, I was impressed with how quickly the seasons changed here in Austin, from warm and humid to cool and dry within only the hours that it took a cold front to pass through town.  As I lived here, though, I've realized that the seasons change more in the way that fresh water changes to salt water as a river flows into the sea.  Fresh water slowly becomes more salty until, eventually, the river water is indistinguishable from the sea water.  In the same way, the hot season holds on through the weeks of September and October, slowly becoming more diluted by northern fronts and shorter days until, finally, we realize that we have reached the cool season.

The hot season held on longer than usual this year, providing a second, more-reasonable summer with cool mornings and sunny afternoons.  At the beginning of this week, realizing that the heat wouldn't last much longer and that, even if it did, water levels in Barton Creek were dwindling by the week, Lee and I went to the Greenbelt for the final "swim" of the season.  Upstream of the Mopac entrance, the water was flowing but shallow, and the Golden-Eye sunflowers were wilted in the afternoon sun, speaking of the hot season that still hadn't given up, but yellowed tree leaves were also scattered along the trail, reminders that the cool season was gaining strength.  We jumped in the water at Sculpture Falls, claiming our last bit of summer, but the sun was already below the trees to the west, casting cool shadows across the water, so only a few minutes later we climbed back onto a sunny rock.

Now, at the end of the same week, the cool season has claimed the upper hand.  Waking in the morning, I linger under the blankets, calculating the distance to my robe.  I use more hot, than cold, water in the shower.  I'm wearing jeans instead of shorts and drinking hot tea instead of cold water.  Benji's morning nap has moved from the cool, northeastern-facing living room to the sunny windows along the south wall.  Today, as I write this, she is curled up in my lap, with her tail wrapped around her nose, forcing me to sit sideways as I type.  To me, this is the truest, and most precious, signal that the cool season has arrived - when Benji, our sixteen-year-old, too-independent-for-lap cat, insists on curling up in my lap for a little warmth.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Urban Garden Pests

I expected the cats.  My neighborhood, which is adjacent to the overgrown, northern section of the Boggy Creek Greenbelt, supports a large wild cat population.  So it was no surprise when, just as I started digging up the lawn, creating many square feet of soft, recently-turned soil, the neighborhood cats began using the yard as their litter box.  Stepping carefully around piles of cat shit, I actually found the situation entertaining because I could envision the particular kind of joy that is experienced by a cat who has just discovered a wonderfully soft place to dig.  I began referring to the yard as "The Best Cat Box Ever."

Once I planted seeds and began watering the garden every day, sometimes twice a day, to keep the soil uniformly moist, the cats stopped using it.  Cats don't like to get their feet wet and, probably with some disappointment, went back to digging up the mulch around the side of the house.

Then came the dogs.  Or the dog?  The dogs like the cedar mulch that I spread on the paths between the garden beds.  Or, to be more clear, the dogs like to shit in the cedar mulch that is supposed to be providing me with dry, flat pathways through my garden.  Instead, the mulched pathways grow lumps overnight, and stepping over a lump seems to guarantee stepping into a fresh pile of dog shit, because dogs, unlike cats, don't bury their shit.  Dogs dig for pleasure then take a dump somewhere in the vicinity.  Twice already I have stepped in fresh piles, and one of those times I was carrying a shovelful of another pile.  Realizing what I had done, I sidestepped quickly, taking weight off the poorly-placed foot while still balancing the shovel and trying to avoid stepping on newly-sprouted lettuces, only to place the other foot, the one upon which I was now resting about 90% of my weight, squarely onto another fresh turd that I had kicked out of its original place in the process.

Where my garden shoes now live

And, though the process of gardening is, in theory, calming, there is no way to calm a woman who is carrying dog shit in the treads of both of her shoes while holding another shovelful of dog shit.  Dog shit from somebody else's dog.  Somebody else whose dog is running free around the neighborhood at night, or, worse, somebody who allowed her/his dog to shit in my yard as s/he watched.  I wanted to march up the street and empty my shovel, and clean my treads, onto the porch of the neighbors whose dog is often out and has chased sixteen-year-old Benji up a tree.  But Lee suggested that, perhaps, starting a neighborhood feud wasn't the best idea.  And I have to admit that, lately, it's been another neighbor's dog that's been keeping everyone on the street awake as it runs up and down the street chasing cats and barking that incessant, yapping bark.  So, much as I want to be mad at somebody, I don't even know who that somebody is.

Dogs on the loose.  A clowder of wild cats.  Those are only the "domestic" mammalian pests of the front-yard garden.  Something else - I'm guessing a raccoon or skunk - has also been digging in the garden beds, probably looking for fat Japanese beetle grubs.  So far only one row, the Tatsoi, has been damaged by the digging, which usually occurs around the edges of the beds, but it is a daily annoyance to find my once-neat beds spilling onto the pavement.  Each morning, in addition to searching for and removing dog shit from the paths, I rake or sweep loose soil from the sidewalk or driveway back into the garden before watering, hoping that, soon, the grubs will burrow too deep in the soil to be of interest to the raccoons or skunks.

The blank slate of the gardener is a freshly-turned rectangle of soil.  To me, freshly-turned soil is the perfect place for planting rows of seeds.  But freshly-turned soil is also a blank slate for cats and dogs, who see an opportunity for digging and finding smells and marking their territory.  And it is a feeding opportunity for birds, and raccoons, and skunks, who are able to find seeds and insects from deep in the soil that have been moved to the top layer.  By turning the soil, I didn't just make a garden space for myself.  I also, inadvertently, invited all the mammals in the neighborhood into my yard, and I created the perfect opportunity for all the seeds that were once buried beneath my lawn to germinate.  Here I was thinking that in my yard I wouldn't have any competition.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Week After Planting

One of the reasons that I love fall gardening is that, with the soil still warm from the summer, seeds germinate quickly.  Within a few days of planting, cracks appear where seedlings are about to push their way through the soil.  A week after planting, several rows of green cross the garden.  Even from a distance, and even though they are surrounded by soil on all sides, each green row has its own, distinct character.

Front-yard garden one week after planting

The first seeds to germinate are the Brassicas, the cabbage-family plants in the genus Brassica.  Brassicas include Brassica oleracea (kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi), Brassica rapa (Chinese cabbages and bok choy varieties), Brassica juncea (brown mustards), and Brassica napus (rutabaga and canola).  The fact that kale, bok choy, and mustard are all closely-related plants explains why their seedlings are indistinguishable from each other.  Each of the two cotyledons on a Brassica seedlings look like half of a four-leaf clover, giving each seedling a split-four-leaf-clover appearance.

Kale (Brassica oleraceae) seedlings at one week

Brassicas are not only fast at germinating, they are also very reliable at germinating.  I've had low germination with spinach and lettuces (soil too warm), with beets and chard (insufficient soil-to-seed contact), with carrots and parsley (didn't keep soil moist for long enough), and with just about any other kind of seed that was from a year-old or two-year-old seed packet.  But I've never had trouble with the Brassicas.  In fact, the cabbage-family plants germinate so readily compared to lettuces that I now shy away from buying "salad mix" seed packets that contain a mix of the two, because the mustard, mizuna, and arugula always take over, leaving little room for the lettuces.  This year I am growing Asian greens in rows separate from the lettuces.

Asian greens (Brassica rapa) seedlings at one week

This fall I also planted fenugreek seeds.  Fenugreek is commonly used in Indian cooking, both as an herb, using the leaves of the young plant, and as a spice, using the dried seeds of the plant.  I love the smell and flavor of fenugreek, but I have never grown it before, so I am not sure what to expect from the plants.  I was surprised to discover that fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is in the bean family.  I soaked the seeds overnight before planting, as instructed on the seed packet, and they germinated quickly as a fat row of mini-bean seedlings.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) seedlings at one week

I have a fondness for spinach (Spinacia oleracea) seedlings.  They have long, strappy cotyledons that grow quickly after emerging.  To me, spinach seedlings appear earnest, honored to have a place in the garden and ready to get to work quickly.  The past couple of times that I have planted spinach, I planted in September, when the soil was still at summer temperatures, and, as a result, germination was low.  So this week I have been happy to watch a healthy row of spinach seedlings emerge.

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) seedlings at one week

Shortly after the spinach germinates, the beets and Swiss chard, botanical relatives from the same family as the spinach, germinate.  Because beets and Swiss chard are varieties of the same plant, Beta vulgaris, their seedlings are very similar.  The cotyledons of beets and Swiss chard seedlings are capsule-shaped, longer than they are wide, but not nearly as long as spinach cotyledons.

Beet (Beta vulgaris) seedlings at one week

Next to germinate are the lettuces, many varieties of Lactuca sativa.  Lettuces are in the sunflower family, as are dandelions, daisies, ragweed, tansy, and so many lawn and garden weeds.  As a result, lettuce seedlings look a lot like common weed seedlings until they grow their first set of real leaves.  Lettuce seedlings are tiny and each of their two cotyledons are round ovals that are almost circular.

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) seedlings at one week

The next plant to germinate is another that I have never grown before, sorrel (Rumex acetosa), a buckwheat-family green that is a relative of rhubarb.  Sorrel seedlings are tiny, the same bright, yellow green of lettuce seedlings, and have oval-shaped cotyledons.

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) seedlings at one week

The last plants to germinate are those in the carrot-family.  Many times I have lost patience with carrot or parsley seeds and given up on them, only to find a few seedlings germinating a week later.  Carrot (Daucus carota) seedlings, in contrast to the feathery, twice compound leaves of the adult plants, are long and thin, resembling blades of grass peaking from the soil, except that carrot cotyledons, unlike those of grass, emerge in twos.

Carrot (Daucus carota) seedlings at one week

Cilantro, a.k.a coriander (Coriandrum sativum), also a carrot-family plant, has cotyledons that look almost rectangular at first glance.  Cilantro is much more reliable at germinating, and grows more quickly, than carrots or parsley.

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) at one week

One week after fall planting, I am still waiting for two other representatives of the carrot family -  fennel (Foenicucum vulgare) and parsley (Petroselinum crispum).  Fennel is just starting to emerge, with tiny, wispy cotyledons that remind me of carrot seedlings.  But, parsley, oh, reliably late parsley - I even double planted that row, with this year's seeds and with some leftover from last year, expecting a long wait.  But I will continue to water, and to wait, and hopefully, in another week, I will have a mix of flat-leaved and moss-curled parsley seedlings to photograph.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mac & Cheese with Leeks

Growing up, macaroni and cheese was a staple, and as far as my dad, my sister, and I were concerned, my mom owned the patent on the only real recipe for mac and cheese.  Her mac and cheese was simple but delicious, consisting of elbow macaroni, sharp cheddar cheese, milk, margarine, salt, and pepper only - no fancy sauces, no crunchy toppings, and certainly no onions.  Just as securely in place at the family dinner table, just in case anyone ever considered improvising with mac and cheese, was the cautionary tale of the mac and cheese that Nana, my mom's mom, made for my dad and I while my mom was in the hospital having my sister.  Nana had added onions.

Now, granted, Nana, who supported her family before it was fashionable for women and was ahead of her time in intellectual ways, was squarely a woman of the fifties in the kitchen.  She believed that vegetables and fruits were better when they came from a can.  So when she made the famous mac and cheese with onions, she didn't sauté a fresh onion and slip it into the mix, where it might not have been noticed.  Instead, Nana cracked open a can of fried onions, the ones that fill huge displays during the holidays, alongside the green beans, and she stirred those shriveled, salty sticks into the mac and cheese.  She probably poured a generous layer over the top as well, thinking that she was being hip by following some holiday-casserole recipe highlighting the importance of the crunchy topping.  Needless to say, the crunchy onions were not a hit with my dad or with fussy, two-year-old me, and we've been telling the story ever since.

Years later, more out of lack of time than preference, I became an Annie's eater.  When Lee moved in with me, he discovered that, not only was I making my Annie's with soy milk, I was also stirring in black olives, or tomatoes, or sautéed onions and mushrooms, or steamed broccoli.  I'm more of a mac-and-cheese purist, he told me, explaining that real milk and extra cheese were the only add-ins that he used.  And, seriously, we should be making mac and cheese from scratch, he continued, going on about the injustice of paying so much for packaged cheese powder.  At which point I gave him the look that said, when I rescued you, you were living on frozen food and hot fries.  So we compromised.  I adjusted to eating Annie's with real milk and grated cheddar, and Lee got used to finding sautéed mushrooms or steamed broccoli in his shells and cheddar.

But then I had some time and some extra milk, and I decided that I wanted to make mac and cheese from scratch.  I wanted to make a fairly pure mac and cheese, based on milk, cheese, butter, and pasta, and lacking the cups of assorted vegetables that get added to modern, "healthy" mac and cheese recipes.  I read through many recipes and eventually found a Baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe that I liked as a starting place.  I modified that recipe and made a batch, which was delicious but, well, I wanted to add something to it.  So I tried a different pasta and other cheeses and baked another batch for some friends with a newborn.  That batch was even more delicious, but, again, I wanted to add something.  That's when I saw huge, beautiful leeks at the co-op grocery and realized that I wanted to add leeks and garlic to my mac and cheese.

I made the casserole on Sunday and we've been living on it ever since, inhaling every bowlful.  So my mac and cheese isn't simple, and it includes non-family-approved ingredients, and it isn't even macaroni, but it is delicious and satisfying.

Fusilli and Cheese with Leeks

1 pound fusilli pasta (or other small pasta, such as shells, elbows, or penne)

2 T butter
3 large leeks
8 cloves of garlic, minced
sea salt
fresh cracked black pepper

3 T butter
3 T flour
1 T mustard powder
3 cups whole milk
2 bay leaves
1/4 t chili powder
8 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
4 oz Parmesan cheese, grated
2 oz Gruyere or Swiss cheese, grated
1 t sea salt
fresh cracked black pepper

2 T butter
1 cup breadcrumbs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Bring at least 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot.  Cook the pasta according to the package instructions, but remove the pasta from the boiling water slightly before it is fully cooked.  (Test it to be sure - the pasta should be almost done but not quite cooked through, because it will be baked later.)  Pour the pasta into a colander and run cool water over it to bring it to room temperature.  Set aside.

While waiting for the pasta water to boil, wash the leeks.  Remove and discard the root end and the outermost layer of the leek.  Slice the leek into thick coins, starting from the white end.  At the green end of the leek, remove and discard the course, green parts.  Continue slicing the lighter green parts.

In a large skillet, melt 2 T butter.  Add the sliced leeks.  Sauté on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are soft, about 10 minutes.  Add the garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes, stirring frequently.  Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

In a medium sauce pan, melt 3 T butter.  Whisk in the flour and mustard powder, making a paste that is free of lumps.  Continue to whisk for a few minutes or until the flour is heated through.  Add the milk, bay leaves, and chili powder.  Heat, stirring almost continuously to prevent scalding, for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture begins to thicken slightly.  Turn the heat down to low and stir in the cheeses, reserving about 1/3 of the cheddar for later.  Stir in the salt and season with fresh cracked black pepper to taste.

Combine the pasta, leeks, and cheese sauce in a large pot.  Stir to distribute the sauce and pasta evenly.  Pour the mixture into a 2- or 3-quart casserole dish.  Sprinkle the remaining cheddar cheese over the pasta.

To prepare the topping, melt 2 T butter in a small skillet.  Add the breadcrumbs and stir to coat them with butter.  Spread the breadcrumbs over the top of the pasta.

Bake uncovered for about 30 minutes or until bubbling hot throughout.  Remove from the oven and allow the pasta to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 6-8 servings, and is great as leftovers.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Greenbelt in October

Sunflowers ruled along the upper stretches of The Greenbelt last weekend.  Yellow was the dominant color filling open fields, brightening woodland openings, and dotting the shadier parts of the trail.  Most impressive of the sunflowers were the Maximilian Sunflowers, whose six-foot-tall flowering stalks holding multiple, bright-yellow flowers, towered above the fields of yellow.

Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani)

Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) spend most of the summer as much shorter rosettes of leaves, storing energy until the fall, when they send up their impressively tall flowering stalks.  They bloom from September through November, and their leaves and seeds provide food for birds and mammals.  These perennial sunflowers tend to live in colonies, like the one at the upstream end of the The Greenbelt trail, where woodlands give way to open meadow.  Last weekend, at the height of bloom, bees buzzed from one yellow flower to another, enjoying the buffet of nectar provided by Maximilian Sunflower, Golden-Eye (described below), and Broomweed.

Lee and I entered The Greenbelt at the end-of-the-trail entrance, a.k.a. "The Hill," where the first section of trail was a long, rocky descent into the Barton Creek floodplain.  The vegetation along that upper section of trail differed from the stream-side vegetation below.  Tatalencho (Gymnosperma glutinosum), a perennial herb with woody stems, was growing out of the limestone at the edge of the trail, blooming bright yellow.  Tatalencho blooms June through November.

Tatalencho (Gymnosperma glutinosum)

Evergreen Sumac (Rhus virens) shrubs lined the steeper sections of the descent, providing some shade.  Up close, I noticed that the shrubs were blooming in tiny, white flowers.  The leaves of the Evergreen Sumac are not truly evergreen, but remain on the plants through the winter, falling about a week before leaf-out in the spring.  Blooming July through October, Evergreen Sumac flowers provide nectar for butterflies.  In the winter, their fruits are food for birds and mammals, making Evergreen Sumac, which is also drought-tolerant, a useful landscaping shrub.

Evergreen Sumac (Rhus virens)

A few Kidney Wood shrubs bloomed alongside the Evergreen Sumac, adding fragrance to the air.  Plateau Agalinis (Agalinis edwardsiana), a close relative of Prairie Agalinis, was also in bloom along the upper section of the trail.  Plateau Agalinis, which tends to grow in dry, limestone soils, can be distinguished from Prairie Agalinis by its long pedicels, or stalks that connect each flower to the main stem of the plant.  Both Agalinis species bloom in the fall, providing nectar for butterflies.

Plateau Agalinis (Agalinis edwardsiana)

A rocky outcrop most of the way down the hill was dotted with the pink flowers of Small Palafox (Palafoxia callosa), an annual herb that reseeds itself on rocky slopes.  Small Palafox blooms August through November and attracts butterflies.

Small Palafox (Palafoxia callosa)

At the bottom of the hill, we headed upstream through the fields of yellow sunflowers to reach the uppermost falls.  We crossed the creek above the falls, delighted to see that the creek was running clear but shocked at the chill of the water as we stepped into it.  We followed the narrow south-side trail downstream though dense woods.  We detoured to look at two mini falls along the creek.  Below one of the mini falls, where the water was waist-deep and clear, we took off our shirts and jumped in.  The water was too cold to linger, but I enjoyed one more float in the creek, possibly the last of the season.

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica) was common along the trail, growing in small clearings.  I was surprised to see so much Frostweed because I thought that I had first seen Frostweed two weeks ago at Southeast Metro Park.  Apparently, I've walked by many Frostweed plants in the past without knowing their name.  I find it amazing how identifying a plant suddenly makes it visible in a known landscape.

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica)

A Cardinal Flower, bright red with striking three-part petals, grew alone in the shade.  Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) grow in moist soils along waterways or in stream beds and bloom from May through October.  Their tubular flowers provide nectar for hummingbirds.  Cardinal Flowers, which are perennial herbs, are becoming less common in our area due to over-picking.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) also grew in the shade of understory shrubs.  Blue Mistflower is a perennial herb that grows in moist soils and blooms from July to November, attracting bees and butterflies.

Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Pink, white, red, and blue ... so many colors of wildflowers to see along the trail in October, a month known in temperate climates for the oranges and browns of autumn.  I also saw the pink of Wood-Sorrel flowers, the deep purples of Drummond's Wild Petunia, and many branches loaded with magenta berries of the American Beautyberry.

But, by far, yellow was the color of the day.  Yellow sunflowers dominated not only the open fields but also along the trails.  While I had to look for all of the other colors, yellow was around every corner, filling every clearing.  Most of the yellow along the trail was provided by colonies of Golden-Eye, an open, bushy, many-branched shrub that was covered in yellow blooms.  Golden-Eye (Viguiera dentata) is drought-tolerant and prefers part-shade, growing on limestone soils at the edges of woodlands and in pastures.  Golden-Eye blooms October and November, providing nectar for bees and butterflies.  Birds eat the seeds of Golden-Eye, which also provides cover for wildlife in woods and pastures.

Golden-Eye (Viguiera dentata)

In sunny openings between the trees, Golden-Eye grew thick and tall, filling the space with yellow.  In the part-shade of the woods, Golden-Eye was shorter and more-branched, but still covered in yellow.  As we neared our turn-around point, we rested in a shady spot, which, of course, was also filled with the yellow flowers of Golden-Eye.

Golden-Eye (Viguiera dentata) colony

At Sculpture Falls we crossed the creek, admiring the falls and noticing how much lower the water was than it had been a month ago.  We returned upstream along the main trail on the north side of the creek.

The north-side trail, which was wider, drier, and more elevated than the trail on the south side of the creek, was also lined with Frostweed and Golden-Eye.  A light-purple daisy, Texas Aster (Symphyotrichum drummondi var. texanum) grew in a few shady places along the trail.  Texas Aster is a perennial herb that blooms September through November.

Texas Aster (Symphyotrichum drummondi var. texanum)

Nearing the end of the trail, we took one last look at the creek and one more walk through the sunflower meadow before heading back up the hill.  With the midday sun overhead, I zigzaged from one side of the rocky trail to other, traveling between the small patches of shade provided by Evergreen Sumacs and Cedar trees.  The climb, as always, was longer than it had seemed on the way down, with the hill continuing up! around every corner, but was well worth the experience of running water and of the fields of yellow below.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Being Prepared

When I was training to be a teacher, we learned about three phases of instruction: planning, delivery, and reflection.  One evening early in the training, long before any of us had ever stepped in a classroom, we were asked which phase was the most important.  I chose planning, not so much because I really thought that planning would outweigh delivery in the classroom, but because I knew that planning was my strength and so hoped that planning would be the most crucial phase.  The answer, of course, was that all three of the phases were equally indispensable.

As predicted, my strength as a teacher was in being prepared.  I was organized, in fact, so organized that I frequently heard comments, ranging from OCD diagnoses (from students) to awed compliments (from other teachers), about my classroom.  But what I noticed as I became increasingly exhausted with the job is that the teachers who seemed most suited to the job were those whose strengths were in the phase of delivery.  While we planners were exhausting ourselves by spending evenings and weekends planning ahead, and while the reflectors were complicating every meeting with attempts to diagnose what went wrong with last week's lessons, the deliverers were directing their energies exactly where it made the most sense - in the classroom, within the school day.

So one of my goals, in this post-teaching life, is to find pursuits where planning, and being prepared, are rewarding, not exhausting.

In the garden, preparation rules.  Experts and books on gardening emphasize the importance of preparing the soil.  For example, I recently read The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust, a thorough reference book detailing all aspects of installing and maintaining a perennial garden.  A theme stressed throughout the book is how the "proper initial preparation" of garden beds will ensure healthy growth of your plants and will save time and maintenance later.  DiSabato-Aust recommends getting rid of all perennial weeds and adding four inches of organic matter to the soil before planting.

I also know how important soil preparation is from personal experience.  I've watched many would-be gardens, planted in haste at the height of the spring season, turn into overgrown weed patches.  I've battled Bermuda grass and realized how impossible it is to remove once it is growing within the roots and branches of a perennial plant that I don't want to lose.  I've watched my garden fail to thrive because I failed to add anything to the soil for a couple of seasons, mistakenly thinking that organic meant "add nothing."  I've since learned that adding organic matter before planting leads to bigger, healthier plants and that well-prepared soil, if well-mulched, continues to improve over time with the help of the soil microbes.

Yet, as I've spent the last month preparing my front yard garden, I have found myself reviewing all of the arguments for soil preparation, justifying the time and expense to myself.  Last week, as I added peat moss and compost to the soil, creating raised beds, I kept thinking about the puzzled look on the face of the woman who had rung up the bales and bags of soil amendments, asking why I was buying so much soil but no plants.  I know that soil preparation is important, and I even enjoy the process of it, but some part of me feels the impatient eyes of the deliverers upon me - let's get on to planting, because that's what matters, right?

And, yes, planting and maintenance and reflection are all important in a garden as well.  But the initial preparation of these beds can only be done once and this is what I know - that time and effort spent here, now will save me time in weeding, troubleshooting, and replacing plants in the long run.  And that may be one of the reasons that I like to garden, because in the garden, being prepared pays off.

Front yard garden ready to plant

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Building Walls

My house is on a hill.  The entire property slopes away from the street, so that the front of the front yard, the part adjacent to the sidewalk, is the highest point, while the back of the backyard is the lowest point.  The slope, made of the shifting Austin soil that expands and contracts as droughts come and go, has wrecked the foundation of the house over the sixty years since it was built, but that's a whole, 'nother, expensive story.  The slope, most pronounced in the front yard and at the sides of the house, has also slowed my process of making gardens.  Every time I think, I could build a garden there, I realize that, first, I need to build a retaining wall there, or I will lose all of my soil and water to the hill.

For years I have been staring at retaining walls, noticing how others have used stacking landscape blocks to enclose a garden, create a raised bed, or hold their lawn in place.  I've read the in-store Home Depot display about terracing a slope so many times that I have it committed to memory, and I've stood in front of the pallets of concrete garden wall blocks almost as many times, calculating the price of a wall.  Last week, after I had finished digging the grass and weeds out of the future front-yard garden, I realized that it was time to build a wall.  Or three.

I fear doing things that I've never done before, partly because I'm human and we seem to like the comfort of familiarity, and partly because, as people go, I am one who could be described as uptight.  I like to feel that I am in control and like to appear that I know what I am doing, that I am competent, etc.  But I think what I fear most about a learning a new process, especially one to do with home improvement, is that I don't know where I'm going to get stuck.  I just know that, when it has to do with this house, I am going to get stuck.  I am going to find myself sitting in the dirt in the front yard with a perplexed look on my face as I realize that, before I can go another step further, I have to go back to the home-improvement store for a crucial tool.  The ads for home-improvement stores really should say, We dare you to do it in just one trip.

So this time I planned for three trips - one for each wall.  For each trip I borrowed Lee's truck (and for one trip, Lee himself) and took a pair of gloves for the heavy work of moving bags of leveling sand and garden-wall blocks, first from the display pallet to a flat cart and, later, from the cart into the bed of the pickup. On the first trip I also bought the heavy tool for tamping the soil and sand at the base of the wall.  I hoped that I had everything that I would need.

The first step of building the retaining wall was to dig the trench.  I used a tape measure on either side of the garden to place a string, held taut between two large stones, marking the straight line where I wanted to dig the trench.  The trench needed to be about a foot wide and deep enough that the first layer of blocks would be at least half buried in the soil in the front of the wall.  I imagine that digging the trench can be the longest, and most labor-intensive, step of the process, depending on how dry or compacted the soil is.  Because I had just spent many hours turning the soil in the area where I wanted to build the walls, digging the trench went fairly quickly.  Moving all that soil was still heavy work, especially when I had to move the trench somewhat to accommodate an old water-access tube.  Once the trench was dug, I used the tamping tool to compact the soil at the bottom of the trench.

Next I added leveling sand to the bottom of the trench, distributed the sand along the length of the trench, and used the tamping tool to flatten the sand.

Now I was ready to start placing wall blocks.  I measured and readjusted the "straight-line" string, so that it was straight and parallel with the sidewalk.  I started with a wall block in the middle of the trench, nearest to the old water-access tube, so that all other blocks would be in line with that one.  I made sure that block was level and tilted slightly backwards, then I added a block to the right.  I adjusted the second block until it was in line with, and level with, the first block.  I continued down the row in that way, making sure each block was parallel with the straight line and level with its neighbors.  I found it helpful to have a gardening spade and an extra bag of sand for adjusting the level of the blocks.  Luckily, the blocks on each end of the first row fit perfectly when set at an angle, creating rounded ends to my wall.

The first layer of blocks took some time and required careful attention to the details of straightness and level.  I did a lot of adjusting, checking the level, and adjusting again while I was putting the first row in place.  Once the first layer was straight and level, though, the next layers of blocks were easy to install.  I simply placed the blocks on top of the previous row so that each block was centered on the joint between two blocks of the previous layer.  The garden-wall blocks have a lip on the bottom of the back side that keeps the blocks from sliding too far forward and creates a small set-back between layers of blocks.  Quickly, one layer of blocks turned into three, and I had built a wall.

Well, I had almost built a wall.  One problem arose with the second layer of blocks.  Because every block in the second layer was offset compared to the layer beneath, I ended up with enough space for a half block at each end of the second layer.  Half blocks I hadn't considered.  I planned on using as many full blocks as would comfortably fit and calling that good enough.  I didn't need to be fancy, after all.  But I hadn't considered that offset layers create the need for half blocks.  No way around it, really.  So the first wall, with its incomplete ends, had to wait until after the next trip to the home-improvement store to be finished properly.

The crucial tool that I needed to break a block in half was a masonry chisel, which I found, after some searching and help, on the second trip to the home-improvement store, while Lee was happily stacking blocks onto the cart.  Using the chisel was loud work, banging a hammer on a metal chisel on a concrete block, and I couldn't help but wonder if my neighbors were hating me that day.  But it worked, eventually, and, luckily, I only had a few half blocks to make. 

I used the chisel to score a line down the middle of the top, the bottom, and the back of the block, and I just kept making the carved lines deeper until, all at once, the block broke in two.  Each half block completed one side of the second layer of the wall, allowing me to add the final bricks of the third layer.

With the wall now complete on both ends, I placed a strip of landscape fabric behind the wall to slow the movement of soil through the wall. 

Finally, I shoveled the soil back into the space behind the new retaining wall, holding the landscape fabric in place as I worked down the length of the wall.  Once the soil was level with the top layer of blocks, I raked the soil behind the wall to level it.  My first terrace was now complete.

Now that I had all the necessary tools, and knew how to break a block in half, the second wall went in faster than the first, giving me a second terrace for planting.

Later, I built a third and final wall, creating a third terrace for planting.  With the retaining walls built, finally it was time to amend the soil and plant a garden.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Straggler Daisy

To say that my backyard is filled with straggler daisy would be an understatement.  Except during the flush of spring weeds that happens each year before the trees leaf out, my backyard is straggler daisy.  In fact, straggler daisy is one of the most common native plants in central Texas, where it grows as a ground cover at the edges of woodlands or pastures, along roadsides, and within lawns.  In city and suburban yards, where it invades gardens, takes over lawns, and grows in shady corners that would otherwise be bare, the reputation of straggler daisy is debated - invasive weed or useful, native wildflower?

Straggler daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis) is a perennial herb in the Asteraceae, or sunflower family.  It grows as a ground cover, reaching along the ground with long stems, stolons, that form roots as they grow.  The leaves are formed in pairs, with each set of leaves perpendicular to preceding set, so that the plants have a cross shape.  The blooms, tiny, miniature yellow sunflowers, appear in the center of each "cross" of leaves, one flower per upright stem.  The plant blooms March through November, and can also bloom in the winter if the temperatures remain above freezing.

Straggler Daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis)

For anyone who is trying to grow a traditional lawn, straggler daisy is a weed.  Straggler daisy is shade tolerant, so easily takes over shaded lawns, where Bermuda and St. Augustine grasses struggle.  Yet straggler daisy is also able to grow in full sun, where it intertwines itself with lawn grasses and can out-compete the grasses during a drought.  Straggler daisy spreads by underground rhizomes, and the plants tend to snap off at the base of the shoots when pulled, leaving the roots intact in the soil, ready to grow again.  And, while straggler daisy tolerates mowing, it is not adapted to mowing (the city equivalent of grazing) to the extent that grasses are, which means that a straggler-daisy lawn looks lush until it is mowed, after which it looks, well, a bit bare.

Benji is standing in the backyard, a straggler-daisy lawn, after mowing.  The yard looks neat but certainly wouldn't qualify as a "lawn" to the Hank Hills of the world.

Lucky for the straggler daisy, and maybe even luckier for me, I'm not much of a lawn aficionado, so I am grateful for the mow-able layer of greenery that the straggler daisy provides around my house.  In the years after I moved into the house, my goal was to maintain a neat yard until I had the time to make gardens.  So I didn't care if the lawn died, as long as it looked orderly.  I didn't water the lawns, or fertilize them, or weed them.  I simply cut down the shrubby or woody weeds that were too big to mow and mowed the yard when it grew.  Straggler daisy in the backyard, and a mix of straggler daisy and Bermuda grass in the front- and side-yards, have lived through heat, drought, rainstorms, weed overgrowth, and years of neglect as my low-maintenance, low-impact "lawn."

A weed is only a weed when it grows where it is not wanted, like in a garden or in a lawn.  Straggler daisy, though drought-tolerant and generally tough, is not difficult to remove from gardens.  (Removing it from lawns is another story that, obviously, is not within my realm of experience.)  A thick layer of mulch smothers straggler daisy, or individual plants can be pulled out when the ground is moist.  When the ground is dry, the plants have to be dug out, or they will snap off their roots, which will re-grow.  As a result, I don't worry about straggler daisy the way I do about Bermuda grass or bindweed.  It grows everywhere but can be removed where I no longer want it.

So - weed or wildflower?  With its tiny flowers, straggler daisy doesn't impress tourists or send hikers thumbing through their field guides.  Except to those who garden or keep a lawn, it's a relatively unknown plant, which is odd given that the answer to the question, What is straggler daisy? often is, in Austin, The stuff you're standing on.  But, up close, straggler daisy flowers add specks of yellow to a landscape, and their tiny flowers attract small butterflies.

Straggler daisy is at its best in the shade, where it generously covers ground that otherwise would be bare.  My backyard, which is shaded, would be bare and dusty without the straggler daisy.  Along the north side of the house, which is shady, cool, and rocky, straggler daisy is the only thing that grows.  I'd like to place stepping stones along that narrow strip of yard and to allow the straggler daisy to grow around the stones.  Where the soil is deep enough, I might add wood-sorrel or wild petunia, creating a shady, wildflower-lined pathway.  Along a path, in the shade, in the company of other shade-dwelling, native plants, straggler daisy will get to be the wildflower that it wants to be.

Straggler Daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Thinning Seedlings

I always put off thinning.  It's delicate work, removing tiny stems from around another tiny stem, and I worry that the seedlings that are left after the process, shell-shocked by their new-found space, will flop over and die on me.  So I wait to thin, justifying my procrastination with logical-sounding thoughts.  Some of the seedlings may die anyway, so I'd better wait before I remove any of them, I might tell myself, or, If I wait, the strongest seedlings will emerge and then I will know which ones to remove.  Instead, entire rows of seedlings grow taller, fighting for access to the light, and thicker, intertwining with each other as they produce their second set of leaves.

Over-seeding gets me into this problem in the first place.  I could avoid over-seeding by using one of those seed-planting devices that can be dialed to space tiny seeds, like lettuce and arugula, a half inch or inch apart, so that ten seedlings don't germinate in one spot.  With medium-sized seeds, like beets and chard, I could carefully place seeds in the ground an inch or so apart.  Yet I usually don't bother to space seeds unless I'm planting beans or peas or corn, which have seeds so large that they even have directionality, as in, plant this side down.

I don't over-seed strictly out of laziness, though, admittedly, I do save a bit of time and frustration by not worrying where exactly I set that last, mini-dirt-clod-looking beet seed.  I over-seed because germination is not guaranteed.  Sometimes, as with my row of arugula, every seed appears to germinate, creating a crowded, unbroken row of green, but sometimes, as with my row of chard, germination is so-so, creating a row of already-spaced seedlings that might have been over-spaced had I placed seeds every inch.  And, sometimes, as with my row of lettuce, germination is delayed, which means that many seeds will be lost to rot in the meantime.  Two weeks after planting, stimulated by cooler soil temperatures, the lettuce seeds are finally germinating.

This morning I thinned rows of cool-season-greens seedlings.  The bok choy and Chinese kale were the easiest to thin because their seedlings had the thickest stems, which stood tall as I clipped their neighbors at the soil.  The beet seedlings bled magenta as I cut them, and their leaves stuck to each other, making it almost impossible to remove seedlings without disrupting their neighbors.  The remaining beet seedlings flopped over from the stress.  The chard seedlings were equally floppy but not nearly as crowded, allowing me appreciate their mix of yellow, pink, and red stems as I thinned a few places along their row.  The lettuce row, where only a few plants had germinated last week, surprised me with recent germination and a few tiny lettuces to thin.

The arugula row was the most crowded with seedlings and therefore the most challenging to thin.  The leaves, a mix of half-clover-like cotyledons (seed leaves) and miniature arugula leaves, were so intertwined that I couldn't distinguish which seedling was which, and had to decide which seedlings to keep based on location and stem thickness.  I had to remove several seedlings at a time to clear just an inch between the remaining seedlings.  Every time I cut a stem, the smell of fresh arugula, of mustard and pepper, was released.  The resulting row was more zig-zag than straight line, and the remaining arugula seedlings looked a bit wobbly surrounded by all that open space.  But, given a couple weeks of sun and water, those wobbly seedlings will have grown together, and will once again need thinning.

The reward for thinning seedlings was a fresh salad of greens straight from the garden.  Bigger than sprouts but still much smaller than baby greens, two-sets-of-leaves seedlings offer the crunch and water content of sprouts with a bit of the taste and substance of salad greens.  I eat seedling salads with just a touch of olive oil, salt, and cracked pepper.  I don't use heavy or flavorful salad dressings because I want to enjoy the flavors of the greens themselves, the spice of the Asian greens, the pepper of arugula, the earthiness of beets and chard, and the occasional hint of sweet from a few lettuce seedlings.  Hints of cool-season flavors to come.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Buried History

Digging has its purposes - to turn the soil, to kill the weeds, to aerate - but the real motivation is much simpler: to find things.  I dig in the soil to find out its texture, its rockiness, its depth, its fertility.  I dig in the yard to find, and to destroy, all of the Bermuda grass roots that threaten my future garden.  I dig along the sidewalk and driveway to reveal the rough edges of cement and the knobby grooves that harbor Bermuda rhizomes.  I dig in my yard to discover the history of my property, as told by bits of buried garbage and treasure.  If I am lucky, I find something unexpected or revealing that tells me about the homeowners that came before me.

My house, built in 1951, has had three owners.  The original owner was also the builder of the house, and of many of the houses on the block.  He raised a family in this house, adding a master bedroom and expanding the kitchen as his family grew.  My neighbors tell me that his wife was an avid flower gardener.  The second owner modernized the house, adding air conditioning, fans, and carpets, painted the walls an awful, greenish shade of off-white, and then rented it out.  I am the third owner, and, every time I work on the house or yard, I peel away layers of neglect, accumulated during the rental years, to reveal the property of the original owners.

Hidden under the brush that took over the yard in the rental years was a double layer of bricks, the edge of a three-foot border that once surrounded the backyard.  Along the sides of the house, under the shrubs, and hidden in many corners, were more bricks, mostly grey, concrete bricks with a few red, clay bricks in the mix, that I have piled into a stack in the backyard.  Behind the barbecue structure (another edifice of brick), buried under a few layers of leaves, I found hand prints and names, Don, Valore, Edith, and Dan, signed in the cement, reminding me that this spot was once their territory.  Farther along the fence, in front of a gate leading into the neighbor's yard, a stone pathway across the border was also buried under years of leaves.  The wide pathway, and the lack of privacy shrubs along that side of the backyard, spoke of a long friendship between the two households.

Digging up the front yard, I have discovered many artifacts.  Mostly, I have found garbage - rusty nails, cigarette holders, and soda can tabs.  But I have also unburied relics that remind me of my childhood in the eighties, like cat-eye marbles and ponytail holders, the kind that have two loops with a colored, plastic bead on each loop.  Near the front walk, I dug up two huge, rusty machine screws that may have been used when the sidewalk was built.  This morning, working on the section of lawn that is closest to the front porch, beneath the planter holding boxwood (Buxus microphylla) shrubs, I uncovered a mini-patio of bricks surrounding a water spigot.

Bricks are useful treasure of themselves, providing raw materials for garden paths, edges, borders, and, possibly, walls.  But, even more than I like finding a new supply of bricks, I enjoy the uncovering of something, even just a flat area around a spigot that no longer works, that speaks of the history of the house.  These corners of buried history remind me that there was somebody who came before that cared about the house and the property very much, somebody who had pride in her gardens, her yards, her neat edges.  Somebody who, like me, appreciated boundaries and straight lines and having a flat, clean spot to wind her garden hose.  And, in knowing that this small plot of land was cared for in the past, I become more resolved that it will be productive again in the future.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fall Wildflowers

September showers bring October flowers.  That doesn't have quite the ring of the spring version, but around here it's just as true.  Our wildflower season happens any time the rains fall, and this year, following a wet September, we are enjoying a fall wildflower season in central Texas.  On Sunday morning Lee and I drove to the Southeast Metro Park, which is located on north side of Highway 71, about four miles east of the airport, for a walk and some wildflower viewing.

We walked on the primitive hiking trail, a three-mile, foot-traffic-only trail at the back of the park.  The first (0.2 mile) section of the trail was wide and graveled, leading to an overlook of the valley below.  The view of industry, smoke stacks releasing grey clouds into the sky along the recently-constructed tollway, and the foul, rotting smell of the water-treatment plant a few miles up the Colorado River, reminded me of the east- versus west-Austin socio-economic divide.  On the east side of town, on fertile farmland, we have located our dumps, gravel pits, water-treatment plant, and poor, while the image of Austin, of musicians and artists and outdoor enthusiasts, resides in the rocky hill country to the west.

We walked the loop trail (2.1 miles) and, aside from seeing a couple of fishermen at the ponds, we had the trail to ourselves.  The loop trail crossed through a mix of habitats, including open meadows, brushy fields, and woodlands, and passed by two small ponds.  The loop trail was narrow, just a dirt path that had been amended in low-lying areas with bark, but easy to follow as it wound up and down the hillsides.  Along some of the sunny sections, the trail was overgrown by grasses and herbaceous annuals that had grown into the trail during their last rain-inspired growth spurt.  At the highest point on the trail we stepped onto a slab of granite for a view of downtown Austin.  We continued back down to our starting point through shady, cedar (Juniperus ashei) woods, crossing over and through dry stream beds on several hand-made, cedar-post bridges, which were the highlight of the trail.

The plant family that was best represented along the trail was the Asteraceae (also called the Compositae), or the sunflower family.  Broomweed (Amphiachyris dracunculoides or Xanthocephalum dracunculoides) plants grow as massive bouquets of tiny sunflowers.  Each plant produces a single flower stem, which grows up to three feet tall and is highly branched, producing many bright, yellow flowers.  Broomweed plants grow in dry, limestone soils and bloom from July through November.

Broomweed (Amphiachyris dracunculoides)

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica), another sunflower family plant, gets its name from the fact that, after the first hard freeze of the season, the stems of the plant exude water, which freezes along the stems in icicle shapes.  The stems of Frostweed plants have distinctive wings along their length.  Frostweed plants grow at the edges of woodlands and bloom August through November, attracting butterflies with their white flowers.

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica)
Thick patches of Prickly Pear cactus (Optunia macrorhiza), topped with ripe, magenta fruits were common along the trail.  Heavy spider webs hung between the cactus stems and, on closer inspection, supported huge orb-weaving spiders known as Writing Spiders (Argiope spp.) due to the thick XXX pattern that is often found in the center of their webs.

Writing Spider (Argiope sp.) on Prickly Pear Cactus
Also common along the trail was Wild Petunia (Ruellia nudiflora), an Acanthaceae-family plant that blooms in showy purple flowers from April through October.  Wild Petunia, a ground cover plant that disperses easily by seed, is a host of butterfly larvae and also provides nectar for butterflies.

Wild Petunia (Ruellia nudiflora)

Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata), a tall spurge-family plant, was nearing the end of its bloom.  Snow-on-the-Mountain is common in disturbed pastures and along roadsides.  Its showy flowers, bordered by striped leaves all around, are beautiful but the plant is poisonous and definitely should not be touched.  Snow-on-the-Mountain blooms July through October.

Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata)

Pink, open flowers were all that distinguished Prairie Agalinis (Agalinis heterophylla) from the grasses with which it was growing.  Agalinis is common in grasslands and at the edges of woodlands, where its blooms attract butterflies from June through October.

Prairie Agalinis (Agalinis heterophylla)

The white petals of the Texas Nightshade (Solanum triquetrum) flowers are almost dwarfed by their bright yellow stamens.  Unfortunately, my picture didn't capture the flowers very clearly.

Texas Nightshade (Solanum triquetrum)

The white flowers of the Kidney Wood (Eysenhardtia texana), a large multi-branching shrub of the pea family, were amazingly fragrant.  Even Lee, who had realized that our walk was resembling more of a hike as the sun rose in the sky, slowed down to appreciate the smell of the tiny, white flowers.  Kidney Wood blooms May through October, attracting bees and butterflies.  The large shrubs are also larval hosts of butterflies, and their compound leaves and bean pods provide food for mammals including deer.
Kidney Wood (Eysenhardtia texana)

Wood-Sorrel (Oxalis drummondii), a small pink-flowered herb in the Oxalidaceae family, grew along the trail at the shady edges of the woodlands.  Wood-Sorrel has distinctive, three-part leaves, where each of the three parts looks like a wide, fat "V."  Wood-Sorrel blooms September through November.

Wood-Sorrel (Oxalis drummondii)

Near the end of the loop trail, I saw a familiar plant, Yellow Bitterweed (Helenium amarum), a sweet, small sunflower that also grows wild in my front yard.  Like Broomweed above, but a lot smaller, Yellow Bitterweed also grows as a bouquet of flowers.  Each inflorescence is made of a central, yellow globe surrounded by several, distinctive three-toothed petals.  Yellow Bitterweed grows in grasslands and savannas, or is equally at home in lawns, where it tolerates mowing by blooming low to the ground.  Bitterweed blooms from April through November.

Yellow Bitterweed (Helenium amarum)

Another familiar plant that was growing near the end of the loop trail was Mealy Sage (Salvia farinacea), a plant that is commonly used in landscaping in Austin because it is drought-tolerant and grows well in our dry, limestone soils.  Mealy Sage blooms April through October, providing nectar for hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

Mealy Sage (Salvia farinacea)

By the end of the loop trail, the midday sun was overhead and we were hot and itchy from wading through flowering grasses, hopping over fire ant mounds, and clearing the trail of spider webs, worrying with each web that maybe we had awakened another huge spider.  Back on the wide, graveled main trail, I hurried to catch up with Lee, who had disappeared over the hill ahead, racing for the car.