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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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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Farewell Followed by Freezes

Depressing weather is on the way, appropriate right now, since Molly Ivins died yesterday. How can both Molly Ivins and Ann Richards be gone? Whether you agreed with their ideas or not, the world needs more smartass women, not less.
[Cowtown Pattie has some good words about this Texas legend, and James of Austin has a good story, too.]

For the past week there’s been sniping among the weathermen [they seem to be all men], with some insisting that Austin should prepare for the coldest temperatures since the mid-1990’s, and others scoffingly sure we'd barely sustain a freeze. The latest prediction falls somewhere in the middle: a cold front bringing a hard freeze tomorrow night, followed by three nights in the twenties.

Philo and I went to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center last Saturday for the tree event, but we also looked at some paintings and strolled the paths.

One section of the garden celebrates the plant hunters and botanists who are remembered in the specific names of many native genuses. Austin gardeners who include Salvia greggii among their favorite plants can pay tribute to Josiah Gregg. Other plants with his name include Acacia greggii, Eupatorium greggii and Dalea greggii - those grey leaves surrounding the sign belong to Gregg's Dalea.

We didn't buy any trees, but we came home with several shrubs. That’s our new Evergreen sumac, Rhus virens, in the black container at the front.
The mature specimens of sumac on the trails were quite beautiful. We'll do our best to help this shrub thrive, by planting it as recommended in a raised bed with decomposed granite added to the soil.

There's a dwarf Nandina growing in the large terra cotta pot behind the sumac. Its leaves are green in summer, but the first cold snap turns them red, and they stay that way for months. So think twice before counting on dwarf green Nandinas as a green background for your flowers ... those ruby-red tones might screw up any spring color scheme using delicate pastel tones!

Look behind the Nandina for the Gardenia, subject of a July 14th post. That gardenia should probably go into the garage for the weekend.
Our tall, white-flowering evergreen Abelias look unchanged after the ice, but not the one Abelia that blooms pale pink.
The leaves on this Abelia still had medium green leaves in October, seen here with the stripes of Canna ‘Bengal Tiger’ in the background.

Now the canna is a cluster of brown stumps, and the Abelia leaves have responded to the ice by turning a sort of dark burgundy.

When the ice storm bent their tree branches, the result was so dramatic that the Loquat, Magnolia and Oleander got all the attention. They gradually rebounded, with some lost leaves, and a few branches that appear to be permanently bent. Philo thinks the ice actually improved the shape of Magnolia 'Little Gem'! But in the week following the freeze, everything didn't bounce back like these flexible evergreens.
Plants that usually grow easily here, some of them natives, gradually gave evidence that they may not be returning this spring. Every Salvia guaranitica, growing robustly in large stands around the yard, in different soils and various exposures, died down to the ground without leaving the usual tuft of green at the base, and the Pineapple sage doesn't look good. Texas native Tecoma stans, also called Esperanza or Yellow Bells, turned hard and brown, with no signs of life, and both Barbados Cherries look very bad. If any of the Cupheas, Durantas or Lantanas are alive, they’re hiding it well.

Although all the ice-covered Camellia flowers turned brown and mushy, the Camellia buds emerged from the ice to produce another set of blossoms.

All the blue pansies in hanging baskets and containers lost open flowers, too, but in a few days they started blooming again. This colorful scene greets me every morning when I open the curtain - but what will I see on Monday?

Thursday, January 25, 2007


A NEW BLOG DIRECTORY FROM AUSTRALIA Stuart at Gardening Tips’n’Ideas has set up a garden blog directory featuring a blog search engine and a world map dotted with Garden Bloggers. Go to his website , also linked at left, and click the banner to see how it works. You can also add your garden blog to the map. Guess what city has the most blogs so far!

DIVAS OF THE DIRTLate January is the time each year when our annual edition of the Divas of the Dirt Diary is posted, and it went up late last night. If you’re interested in reading about what the Divas have done lately - garden projects, photos, theme song and new recipes - the adventures from 2006 can be found on the Divas of the website, http://www.divasofthedirt.com/

SATURDAY- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center! Diva Candy relayed this notice:
Tree Talk and Winter Walk 2007, January 27, 9 am - 5 pm.
Join the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in celebrating our annual Tree Talk & Winter Walk on Saturday, January 27, where we will be helping you in “Barking Up the Right Tree”. Our event features a robust Tree Sale, with more than 80 species from which to choose. Purchase the perfect native tree for your urban landscape. Join us for walks and talks, such as how to identify & maintain native trees, & explore the importance of trees in the urban landscape. The day will include a Tree Planting demonstration, and activities for children & families. Don't forget to stop on by our Gift Store, where children's author Michael Todd will be signing copies of his book Texas State Bird Pageant from noon to 3 p.m. You can also get a 20% discount on selected items while shopping at the store (what a deal)!
This one-day free event is packed with organized walks, talks, demonstrations, children’s activities, and useful information on trees including proper tree care, maintenance, planning and landscaping with trees. Join tree experts including: arborist Don Gardner, forester Jim Houser with Texas Forest Service, arborist Guy LeBlanc, and Flo Oxley and Philip Schulze with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center . Also on hand will be participating organizations providing information about their tree related programs: TreeFolks, FireCap, and the Texas Forest Service. Enjoy the Urban-Wildland Interface exhibit, and discover information you can use for landscape planning and maintenance regarding fire safety.
Sponsored by KGSR. For more information and schedule, visit our website, at: www.wildflower.org.
Stephen Brueggerhoff, Public Programs Manager
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
4801 La Crosse Avenue
Austin, TX 78739-1702
THINKING ABOUT COMPOST Carol in Indiana [May Dreams Garden] runs the Garden Bloggers book club, with the January title called Teaming with Microbes. I’m looking forward to reading all the posts and plan to read this book eventually. While I can't do a book club post, I do have thoughts about compost.
We were composting long before we read books by Roger Swain, Eric Grissell and Michael Pollan, or had even heard the name Ruth Stout, practically the Patron Saint of Composting. We began subscribing to Organic Gardening Magazine in the middle seventies, receiving this issue in 1978.
I grew up knowing about composting in a general way: Grandma Anna had a cement bin in the alley behind her Chicago garden, complete with access door set into the front, and my dad made compost from the time we moved out to the suburbs. Philo built a compost enclosure at our first house, and when moving from one house to another in 1987, although he was willing to leave the firewood for the new owner, the whole compost pile was shoveled into sacks and hauled to our new garden.

Now our mulching mower helps the grass clippings break down where they fall. We also use this mower to chop most of the fallen leaves, digging them into the vegetable garden so they can compost over winter. We chop some leaves to use as mulch on some woodland-style beds and borders. I crack & snip smaller sticks to mix in with the mulch, and occasionally put citrus peels through the blender with water, pouring the slurry in garden beds. But we no longer have a designated compost pile or bin.

Our Northern yards were narrow and long with space for a compost pile a reasonable distance from the house. But this neighborhood has irregularly-shaped lots that are wide but very shallow, with short, winding streets. Our lot and the other 4 lots with which we share property lines don’t have right angles – they’re more like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Since we have no ‘out-of-the-way corners’, from any given location in my yard it’s a very short distance to a dwelling, whether my neighbors’ or my own. Instead of being manufacturers of compost, we have decided to be consumers of compost.

And you know what? It feels pretty valid to me. We can buy all sorts of compost from local organic dealers, sometimes going to the you-dig places like Garden-Ville and the Natural Gardener. We buy a great deal of Texas Native Hardwood Mulch, made by a firm here in Central Texas; using it helps keep tree trimmings out of the landfills. We buy organic liquid composts and soil activators like Medina Soil Activator and Terra-Tonic, Medina Hasta-Grow and LadyBug products.
Although we enjoyed our years of making our own compost, buying organic compost products is a good thing, too, encouraging these companies to continue composting on a large scale.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Molded by the Ice

When I went out with my camera yesterday, the ice still held my plants hostage - this relative of papyrus hadn't thawed a bit at 4 in the afternoon.

The cut -off stems of Hedychium coronarium/Hawaiian White Ginger bore an odd resemblance to the Cat tails that grew in Illinois swamps.

Over in the triangle garden, the 'Little Gem' magnolia leaves were gradually emerging, dropping clear replicas of themselves on the grass.

The Loquat leaves were still encased too, with most of the branches still bent. I experimented, holding a leaf and trying to slide off the ice, but it held on tight, so I left it to melt on its own.

But this turned out to be quite unlike my previous experiences with ice storms in the North. Many times ice would arrive just ahead of a thermal drop, so the ice would last longer, and the temperatures would be very, very harsh. I don't think we went below 28ºF here, and the unfreezing process was amazing to me.

This afternoon - ta da! My darling Loquat is rebounding I think, although one limb is now completely horizontal, blocking the patio exit at eye level instead of arching 8 feet overhead as it did a week ago. Ki has advised me that props may be necessary, and if we're going to use the patio, at least this branch will need support.

The ground is littered with browned and frozen loquats; the tiny fruits had just begun developing. A few remain on the tree, but winter isn't over, so my dreams of actually eating any this spring may stay dreams.

Today the 'Little Gem' magnolia [a small tree, shorter than I am] is standing straighter, but the center is more open, with the branches fanned out. The boxwoods look better, but have a new shape, too.

It's one in the afternoon, and we haven't thawed out as quickly here as Pam/Digging and MSS/Zanthan have reported - ice remains floating in birdbaths and in the pots.

I wonder if there will be permanent effects from the bending? From our decades of visiting the Chicago Botanical Gardens, I remember watching as trees were gradually forced into appropriate shapes for their Japanese gardens, with weights tied onto ropes, then suspended from branches. It took years in order to make them grow horizontally, but I may have a head start on that tortured, lateral look.

Is it time to start shopping for stone lanterns?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Grit Needed

Is there beauty in this? Some people can find art even in ice, but I'm having a difficult time joining their ranks. When I opened the blinds yesterday and saw the bowed Loquat, it was like a fast punch to the midsection, and I felt myself spiraling down to a very bad place. Maybe living through decades of midwestern ice storms meant that this sight set off a kind of post-traumatic thing, or something like that. Whatever the reason, all I could feel was despair. To paraphrase Private Benjamin - this was not the Austin I'd signed up for. But today, looking at the blog posts by Pam/Digging and MSS/Zanthan has helped. They're not hiding inside, they're taking photos and even putting videos on YouTube, so I went outside, too. And soon I felt a spark of the scientific curiosity lurking in all gardeners. What will defrost and live? What will immediately rot? Will the oleander ever stand upright again? It will be especially interesting to see whether the native plants can take such a prolonged period of imprisonment in frozen rain.

Henry Mitchell said it well, "It is not nice to garden anywhere...There is no place, no garden, where these terrible things do not drive gardeners mad."

But he also said, "What is needed around here is more grit in gardeners."

My Austin friends have that grit - maybe I can summon up enough to go pour hot water in the bird bath and set out some sunflower seeds.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Did any of you grow up hearing that your body completely replaces its cells every seven years? This was once taught in health class – the teachers told us that we became a new person from the inside out after each seven-year cycle.

If it’s true – then after more than seven years in Austin, my own body has lost whatever winter survival skills those replaced cells once had – turning me into a wimpy weather whiner.

It’s creepy outside, and will stay below freezing until at least Wednesday, with many schools, city offices, and businesses closed for ice. This is not a big deal for most of you, but in Austin we depend on the temperatures to go above freezing during the day – a fact that affects how we landscape our gardens, the kind of windows used in our houses, the exposed plumbing systems and the kinds of clothes and shoes that we own. It may also explain why there were five men in the express line at the HEB grocery earlier… in light jackets, some in shorts, all wearing caps, and each one toting a 12-pack of beer.

Before the ice encrusted everything, I ran out to cut the iris that had budded a few weeks ago. It's in water, and still might open. I bought this two summers ago at an iris society sale, labeled as a hybrid Purple variety. The color in this photo is pretty true-to-life - that bud doesn’t look as if it will bloom purple, does it?

While this new iris may still be a beauty, it may have to be moved, because that spot calls for a purple-blooming plant. About six years ago I bought a plant labeled "Blue Iris" at a Hyde Park housewalk. It bloomed like this last March and the flowers smelled like orange sherbet.

This is one of my favorite iris plants now, but I still really want some purple ones and hope the recently planted purple ones from my friend Sophia and the new start of Pam/Digging's iris called 'Amethyst' will not take years & years to bloom.

Every year in mid-January, I stay up late and get cramps in my hands, compiling the annual Divas of the Dirt Diary. It’s not a blog – more like an impressionist ramble through the past year, with as many photos as possible. This is last year's edition. I’ve been immersed for days, with no end in sight…so for once this is a short blog post – not a class in ancient garden history!

I'll be back sooner or later!


So many of you have moved to the new Blogger, but I’m still standing on the edge of the pool, shivering in my towel. Since my posts have been going in many different directions lately, the idea of tags and indexing is very tempting! Are you glad you changed over?
Do the drawbacks outweigh the advantages?
What should I watch out for?
How much time should I set aside for the transition?
Should I do this, yes or no?
All advice will be gratefully received!!

Saturday, January 06, 2007


At May Dreams Garden, Carol has posed questions about seed gardening. I read the fascinating answers, and decided to tell our story, too, even though much of our seed buying took place years ago.

In my childhood memories, certain people shared the wonder of seeds. My grandmother Anna handed me a round pod from a tall hollyhock, opening it to display the way the seeds were all nestled in a ring, telling me that we needed to plant them in late summer to grow and flower the next year. I promptly tried to plant them under an Ailanthus tree, and learned that hollyhocks need sun.

When I was in elementary school, we students were given boxes of seed packets, and after being pumped up by classroom speeches, were sent home to sell them door-to-door, thus improving the world and gaining fabulous prizes. I can’t remember if it was a result of one of these campaigns, but my mother planted a package of Four O’Clocks near the SW corner of our house. The little things that looked like pebbles became a temporary shrub, “The Marvel of Peru”, that was covered in flowers by the time school began in fall.

My dad occasionally planted a row or two of peas, and the vines produced pods that we could pop open, eating the delicious raw peas. Maybe my father had hoped to grow real crops on our acre of suburban prairie? After all, our neighbors treated their acre like a miniature farm, with a vegetable garden, dwarf fruit trees, goats and grapevines. That was possible for two mature people – but our well could barely meet the household needs of a family with 5 kids. There was enough surplus water left for keeping saplings alive and growing a few vegetables, but no mini-farm for us.

I was not yet out of my teens when I married Philo, and discovered that my husband was a born gardener! Even when we were newlyweds, living in beat-up grad student housing, he planted sunflowers, radishes, peas, and marigolds in the tiny patch of land around the house. Another graduate wife gave me a few divisions of perennials – oxalis, chrysanthemums and iris, and our plant propagation pattern began.

We had space for medium-size vegetable gardens in each of our three Illinois yards, always with tomatoes, peppers, and of course peas in the vegetable garden, and with summer annuals like zinnias and marigolds in flowerbeds.

By the time we moved to our second house, the Sugar Snap Peas were introduced, just in time for the stirfry craze to sweep the country. We experimented with other interesting vegetables from the catalogs, like delicious Kuta squashes, the new Gypsy peppers, and the very odd Asparagus peas, and we began growing fresh herbs like basil and dill. Some things were planted directly but some were started inside.
When the catalogs came, we’d look them over for weeks, finally making our decisions. Since many favorite vegetables and flowers were available at local stores like Franks, we concentrated our mail orders on the ‘special’ seeds. At that second house, I still scattered cosmos and alyssum, marigolds and zinnias, but my heart belonged to iris, clematis, peonies, lilacs, phlox and other perennials that were shared by division, rather than seed.

When we moved to house # 3, there was a somewhat larger space for a vegetable garden, and there was basement space for seed starting.
Philo built a 4’ X 2’ wooden box, with 4-inch sides, and set it on a worktable so it was at waist level. He cut a section of ½ inch hardware cloth to fit the box exactly, then wound silicone-coated heating tape back and forth, so that all parts of the box would get even heat, making sure the end of the tape with the plug hung out of the box at a corner. He’d scrounged some old wooden window blinds, and took them apart, cutting and fitting them to make a grid, which divided the box into planting squares. This framework was filled with a light potting soil – not the store-bought kind, but a mixture that he’d stirred up like an alchemist in his wheelbarrow. Now it was time to plant the seeds, with the name of each variety written on the wooden wall of each square. Once the seedlings broke ground the lights were turned on. The light fixtures were also scrounged, the old fluorescent tubes replaced with grow lights, and the lights were hung on a frame made of PVC pipe. Philo designed the frame so it could be disassembled and stored.

With this system, Philo grew interesting, hard-to-find varieties of tomatoes and peppers, and I was able to start perennials from seed, like Blackberry lilies, columbine, white coneflowers, Lychnis coronaria alba and splashy hardy Hibiscus.

Those twelve years at house & garden # 3 were the high point of our seed era, ending in 1999 when we came to Texas. We still garden here, but it’s a different kind of gardening – at the last house, the vegetables had to be protected from the deer and grown in a 5' X 12' wire enclosure!
Now in house # 5 we have a small garden area, but with no basement or attic, where could we even set up the seed box? Luckily for us, the Sunshine Community Gardens here in Austin have a sale of plant starts and plant divisions every spring. The lines are long, but Philo has been able to try all sorts of tomatoes and peppers, including heirlooms.

I’ll answer a few of Carol’s questions:
Buy seeds? Yes, we still buy some seeds, but also buy a lot of starter plants. When I am in a nursery, a big box store, gift shops belonging to parks, or even in unlikely places like the dollar stores, I’ll run my eye over the seed racks. To a casual observer, my purchases might look like impulse buying, but I keep a sort of mental wishlist, so if I see the ones I want, I grab them, wherever they show up. That’s why I have a package of heirloom 'Cupani' Sweet peas ready to plant – they turned up at Red Barn and I grabbed them.

Seed Catalogs? I’m ashamed to admit this, but since moving to Texas in 1999, we’ve become such crummy mail order customers that no one even SENDS us any catalogs! I do browse the Park Seed site, but the Plant Delights site gets more hits from my computer.

Bulk seed store? One place we frequented was Pioneer Feed and Grain back in Illinois. It’s a cool old-fashioned place, with some seeds by the scoop, as well as seed potatoes and onion sets.

Save seeds? I save the seeds from many plants, like Moonvine, Blue Pea Vine and Hyacinth Bean. I buy basil seed, alyssum, and sometimes zinnias for cutting. There are always a few seed packages in a basket in the breakfast room.

Since we moved to house # 5 in this warmer climate, some of our annuals and perennials feel quite at home here, and they volunteer all over the place. Sometimes the 'Coral Nymph' salvias, Cardinal vines, Larkspurs, Verbena bonariensis, marigolds, Cooper lilies, Purple coneflowers, Balloon flowers, Cupheas, Sunflowers, ‘Katy’ Ruellia, Pavonia/Rock roses, and cilantro choose a different place from what I had originally planned. If that place is a better choice, they can stay. If I don’t approve, they’re weeded out or relocated.

As the garden evolves, it seems less necessary to plant seeds – and more important to recognize seedlings.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Green Christmas

Just got home from Illinois, lock the front door, oh boy… doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back door.” By John Fogarty of Credence Clearwater Revival

A few days after making the previous post, Philo and I left Austin and made a nine-day journey to celebrate Christmas. In Illinois we spent three nights at my youngest sister’s house. My mom was there, too, and we enjoyed the novelty of waking up in a home where children live. My sister and her husband host a wonderful, large Christmas dinner every year, inviting their combined families, with guests from age 6 to 96. Even doing the dishes was a pleasure, with my sisters and niece singing together as they washed and dried the china.

When the workweek began, we moved to an extended stay motel, continuing to visit with friends and family for a few more days. [That’s the motel parking lot at top – it had an interesting assortment of northern evergreens like pines, arborvitae and yew that we seldom see here.]

It's a long way from Austin to Chicago, so four of the nine days were spent in the car - eleven or twelve hours on each day, totalling more than 2600 miles. On the way up we passed through north Texas, Oklahoma & Missouri, entering Illinois at St Louis. On the way back we traveled the length of Illinois, cut off a little part of Missouri, then drove through pouring rain across Arkansas to Texarkana where we turned toward Central Texas.

We’ve made this trip in other years, watching the car thermometer drop 5 º every few hours, sticking well below the freezing mark in the metro Chicago area. That didn’t happen this year! Austin was cooler than usual, and Illinois was warmer, so that our TX son reported a mere 8 degrees benefit to staying in Austin. I had no gloves in the car, intending to buy a pair along the way, but never needed them, and didn’t miss the forgotten boots.
In north Texas, we were stunned by the green fields on the side of IH35. We’ve never seen anything but browned plants there, whether we drove that stretch in winter’s cold, or summer’s heat. Maybe it's winter rye grass?

When we got home, we looked out our back door, and saw no tambourines or elephants, but the Camellia japonica ‘Pius X’ opening its first flowers. Although many people think that attempting to grow camellias in Austin isn't sensible, this plant hasn't been that demanding - just needing a little extra water, some organic, ironized seaweed, and a steady supply of coffee grounds.

The pecans were leafless, but the roses are green. There were a few paperwhite narcissus in bloom, looking pretty ratty from the rain that blessed Austin while we were gone.

One iris had boldly extended a bud stalk – whether it will open first or freeze first is in question. This is a newer iris, one I haven't seen in bloom yet.

We returned late on Saturday, and I’ve been trying to catch up with all the garden blog posts made since December 22nd. It seems that plum blossoms are opening in New Jersey, there’s very little frozen ground in the upper Midwest, and that LostRoses has cornered the entire snow supply this winter – isn't the weather normal anywhere?

Whether you’re too warm, too cold, too wet or too dry, Happy 2007 to all of you!