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Annie in Austin
Welcome! As "Annie in Austin" I blog about gardening in Austin, TX with occasional looks back at our former gardens in Illinois. My husband Philo & I also make videos - some use garden images as background for my original songs, some capture Austin events & sometimes we share videos of birds in our garden. Come talk about gardens, movies, music, genealogy and Austin at the Transplantable Rose and listen to my original songs on YouTube. For an overview read Three Gardens, Twenty Years. Unless noted, these words and photos are my copyrighted work.
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Monday, December 11, 2006

Enjoying the Evergreens

According to Google Earth, it’s less than 14 miles from Austin’s Zanthan Garden to my Austin garden, but if you’ve been looking at our garden blog posts, we seem to be at least half a climate zone apart. MSS’s tomatoes are chilled, but intact, having gone just below the freezing point a few times. Another Austin blog, Rantomat, reports nothing frozen at all in her garden. Pam at Digging does seem to have a few frosted plants.

In this NW corner of Austin, my tomato and pepper plants were turned to mush at the first freeze on the first morning of December, with other plants, like the Pineapple Sage [Salvia elegans], not giving up until the temperatures went below 32ºF for a third time.

The fennel turned brown right away, but the Mexican Mint Marigold was barely brushed by the cold.

The Philippine Violet succumbed after the second freeze, first getting limp, now drying in place. There’s a paperwhite narcissus in front of it, ready to open a bud. Maybe the plants in South Austin are alive because of the moderating effect of the Colorado River, which has been dammed to make Lake Austin and Town Lake.

Is that what makes the difference? Or is it just being closer to the heart of the city? Another factor may be variations in elevation – Zanthan lies somewhat less than 500 feet above sea level, while Pam/Digging is under 680, and the elevation for the patio at The Transplantable Rose is 978 feet.
[That’s only 22 feet under the official definition of ‘mountain’ in the sweet Hugh Grant movie, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain.]

Unlike the gardenblogs of true northern gardeners like Kati, I have no beautiful frost photos to offer, because these cold snaps hit and run, leaving damage but not sticking around to look seasonal. We have few conifers, but our broadleaved types of evergreens take over now, and plants like the boring-in-summer boxwood are appreciated when the banana is hanging in tatters.

Flowers like pansies and dianthus are planted in fall, or soon after the holiday decorations come down, and are called winter annuals.

In Illinois we planted them in late April, but that’s when the heat starts here. Dianthus and pansies sail though most winters, unfurling buds on warmish days, enjoying the cooler weather just as the gardeners do.

That’s an Ilex at the tip of this post – a Burford Holly of some kind. This shrub was already here when we came, but has never been so full of berries before. I cut a few pieces from it, stripping the bottoms of the clipped twigs and pushing them into the hanging baskets so that the berried tops will hide what remains of winter-killed lantana plants. I’m hoping the twigs can stay green as long as possible, holding onto their berries, and maybe a few can root, if conditions are right.

There’s a hedge of these hollies between my house and the one next door. I like my neighbors - they're lovely people - but they're not gardeners in any way. They prune to ensure that no shade falls across their pool, and they think that the outdoors should be as tidy as the indoors.

I had been eying my side of the hedge earlier in fall, observing the stem ends start to extend in new, lighter-colored growth and the berries begin to turn color. My plan was to make a real holly wreath for my door this Christmas. I was shocked to come home one day and find the Neat-Neighbors had used some kind of hedge clippers to form the holly hedge [and even the graceful variegated privet!] into ugly geometric boxes. If any of those holly cuttings take root, there may be another hedge of holly here some day, not along the lot line, but growing well inside my domain, and never touched by a power tool.


  1. It's interesting to know my garden's elevation--thanks!

    At my previous house, I adored a neighbor's Lady Banksia rose that cascaded over the privacy fence between our yards. One spring Sunday, when it was covered in buds and fresh yellow roses, I awoke to find the rose, butchered and cut back entirely on their side of the fence, hanging over to the ground on my side thanks to its new lopsided shape. It was too heavy to reattach to the fence, and many of the canes had broken, so I got out my pruners and chopped my side back as well, alternately sobbing over the lost flowers and cursing the neighbors---whom I could still hear doing yard work in their back yard. It was not a good-neighbor moment.

  2. Annie,
    I am impressed at how well you know the plants and their habits in your Austin garden, knowing you've not had a garden there as long, yet, as you had in one in Chicago. The holly are quite Christmas-y.

    My sister came home once to find that her neighbor had inadvertently sprayed her grape vine on the fence with "japanese beetle killer" which turned out to be an herbicide. It killed her grapes, but she didn't have the heart to say anything, he had just made a mistake, she said, and meant well...

  3. Since this hedge is on the lot line, I'm sure my neighbors thought they were doing me a favor by making it all level and even - it's just that we have different ideas:)
    Pam, have you ever looked at Google Earth? You can download it for free. I like to use tilt and 'fly' low over the roads to check out the terrain before I drive somewhere new.


  4. Great berry crop on the Holly. I have two American Holly trees, Ilex opaca 'East Palatka' in my garden. I got lucky and got a male and a female of the two I grew from seed and planted. The male always blooms a bit prematurely for the female so my berry crop is always sparse.

    I tried the Google Earth program. It is very cool. What you can see real close-up is dependent on the quality of the satelite and photo data they have for each area. I didn't use it much and removed it last time my computer slowed down because it uses lots of memory space.

    When your big freeze was coming I finally googled a map of Austin to see where it really was in Texas. I thought Austin was west of Dallas/Fort Worth and was very surprised to see it so far south and almost due east of Houston. A much warmer climate than I thought you had.

  5. Annie, you're so well-informed! Your holly looks lovely, very Christmas-y.

    As for the hedge-trimmer happy neighbor, I've been there too! I came home one day to find my then next-door neighbor standing in my yard trimming his bushes whose branches were flowing so gracefully over my side of the fence. I told him I must have some chaos in the garden, but that didn't include him! He was a rather anal sort of fellow and I'm sure he couldn't help it!

  6. Annie, I have used Google Earth to look at my house and other places, but I've never swooped down the street or looked at elevation. I'll have to do some more exploring.

    Christopher, Austin IS way down south. Basically, we're in Mexico, or what used to be Mexico. I grew up in northwestern South Carolina but have lived in Houston or Austin all my adult life. For a while I assumed those areas shared a latitude, but I finally realized how wrong that was. No wonder it's too dang hot here in the summer.

  7. Interesting! I'm becoming more and more aware of microclimates now that I can grow climbing roses up here...

    I'm interested in that fennel plant, though. Is the whole thing brown for you? The tips of mine have been brown since before the frost/freeze, but the bases of them are still greenish purple (it's bronze fennel). Is this maybe because mine are planted right next to the porch foundation and the cement, I wonder?

  8. I never thought much about elevation until I moved here. I was surprised to find out how much effect elevation has even here in the tropics. A lot of the tropical fruits won't produce at elevations higher than 1,500 or 2,000 ft. I think I'm basically at sea level so I guess that means I can't grow coffee.

  9. We had a freeze here in Houston a few days ago, and I lost my coleus and some of my blue daze. It must have only gotten to thirty one or so, because everything else was ok.

    Losing plants always reminds me that gardening is a constant experimen. That's part of what makes it so much fun for me.

  10. Your tale of "neighbor shearing hedge" actually skeeved me. Wow. But these things happen. You seemed to handle it well.

    The more I read though, the more I miss my miss my San Antonio gardens... Crepe Myrtles and so forth.

    Yes, I remember being darned chili down there at times. It isn't wholesale death, freeze and destruction like here, but a crackling fireplace is welcome as I recall.

  11. I'm still sorting through what made it and what didn't - we got down to 19 here! I think it was in the 80s just a few days before, so it was quite a shock. I think my Meyer's Lemon (that I put in the ground) managed okay - but for future cold nights, I made a ring of plastic around it - so it'll be easier to protect and cover. I'm unsure of what a 'phillipine violet' is...? Sorry about the hedge, if you were closer I'd give you a bunch of Savannah Holly branches - and there's plenty of evergreen magnolia and red cedar too. I need to get out and clean stuff up - my entire yard is now a wilted, brownish-grey mess! Except for the camellias...

  12. The holly looks so festive in the basket! I hope it roots.

    I love your "hit and run" description of the frost in the South. I miss the Midwest frost in a way; if its going to kill my plants it might as well stay around and look pretty!

  13. The hedge thing never fails to amaze me. We have privet on both sides in the back yard, and one of our neighbors insists on giving it a Vince Lombardi haircut once a year. Looks awful -- cut back that hard, it goes bald in the middle, and they've achieved the kind of wedge shape that shades the lower branches and keeps them bare too.

    So this year we decided we didn't want to cut our side back that much -- we wanted a vertical cutback with a taller, more natural top -- but we didn't manage to alert the neighbor before the barbering started, so now the hedge looks really mutant, with one half chopped neatly square and our side tall and thin. D'oh ...!

    The other neighbor caught on to what we were [not] doing and asked about it. When I told him cutting it back vertically would keep the leaves coming in at the bottom, he was all for it.

    Hopefully we can persuade the other side to our view next year too.

  14. Microclimates are very interesting. Just around our house, zone 7 camellias will grow only in one very small area. We are considered zone 6b -5 to 0. The small state of NJ it's only about a hundred miles top to bottom, has 5 different climate zones 5b, 6a&b and 7a&b.

    A Japanese maple Sango kaku planted in the front of the house facing NW was barely holding on. When moved to a more sheltered SW corner next to a small pond it's now thriving.

    If you can overhang your tender plants and veggies they can survive a light frost.

  15. The holly is beautiful, and I think the American attraction to the geometric-box-look is just due to frustration. I know that when my daughter's fast-growing barberry-hedge got out of hand, she and I were just happy to saw it down with an electric pruner into the fastest possible "shape" we could reach on a ladder with this noisy motorized instrument. The box-shape proved to be the most convenient.
    We finally just threw money at it, paying an arm and a leg to have professional landscapers come and level it then pry it out with stump-removal equipment. It was a real mess.

  16. Christopher, we really are far south here - most southern of the state capitals - continental ones that is! My husband uses my computer for Google Earth - his can't handle the memory either. [I am spoiled.]

    Pam/Digging and LaGringa, after Katrina hit New Orleans, I felt compelled to looked at the elevation for all the places where we had family and friends. Those numbers were suddenly important to me. The horticultural thoughts on elevation's effects came later.

    Blackswamp Girl, the fennel has little leaves coming up at the base of the browned stems - this plant self-seeded from one that had been in a trough and died in the heat.

    Gary and Pam, isn't it kind of funny how upset we feel about our frost losses, even though the numbers are smaller than what the Northern gardeners deal with? It's still an affront!
    Pam, my magnolia is shorter than I am, but maybe it will grow enough to cut for house greens in a few years. I'm amazed that your Lemon stood 19º.

    LostRoses, Firefly and CountyClerk, if I could see the holly hedge from my window, I might not be so philosophical about it! The area is the only place I share a lotline without a wooden fence, so it's not a constant worry.
    CC, as usual, you use a word that I have to look up or google, and it was 'skeeved' this time.
    I like some of the topiary you've linked to at your site, so I don't totally dismiss the concept of clipping some shrubs, but this was not done well, or at the right time.

    Nelumbo, life would be neater if it stayed cold, but it's hard to complain about lovely patio days in the 80's!

    Ki, some of the frozen stuf was against the SW wall and under the overhang - I guess 28 is cold enough to do cell damage.

    Anon- ML?? That barberry hedge would have left my yard, too. I don't like them at all unless they're away from all people-pathways and growing wands.

    I'm going nuts with Christmas stuff right now- hopefully there'll be another post this year. Thank you all for the comments!


  17. That's a shame about your Holly, Annie. Maybe you could come to some compromise and have it au naturel one year and power-tooled the next so at least to get to enjoy it for 50% of the time.

    Your pictures look fantastic yet I'm glad that it's not winter here.

  18. This is a fascinating piece about micro-climates. Our frost is a little 'hit and run' as well right now, with no prospects of snow in sight for Christmas. At this rate, we might get snow in time for March break.

    Isn't it strange what people will do if they get powered garden-tools into their hands?

  19. I can't believe you neighbor did that. How sad to lose all that beautiful potential wreath material, not to mention spoiling the look of the lovely hedge.
    I love the holly in the basket. So festive! Hope it roots for you.
    I'm drooling over your Meyer's lemons in the post below, and the frangipanni. My mum used to grow both of those plants (her plumeria was yellow), and camelias as well, in Australia. Three of my favorites! But then, I have SO many favorites! :)

  20. We have neigbors like that on one side. They had supposedly expert tree trimmers hack branches off all their birch trees leaving blunt branch ends that were awfully ugly. Apparently they didn't know enough to cut the branches back to the tree collar so the wound would heal. Eventually the ends sprouted many new shoots so they look like miniature pollarded trees but many of them on one tree. The woman cut off branches from the bradford pear leaving the bottom third of the tree without leaves only skeletonized thick branches which grow out at a slight angle then straight up like a candelabra. She also hacked up their weeping japanese maple in July almost denuding the poor tree. I was surprised when it set out new shoots in the Spring - that's one tough tree. Our other neighbor doesn't care about plants and has almost no plantings which is preferable because we can screen out his property with our plants. ;)


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