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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, October 22, 2007

Our Nutty Weekend

A few weeks ago I showed a handful of pecan kernels under the smart-alec caption Ha-Ha Harvest... now I must eat my words - and they are delicious! This is the best pecan year in 3 decades according to Austin, Texas newspaper articles. I don't know who planted ours, but pecan trees may not have been the best choice for a quarter-acre lot. They grow too large and drop something in every season... husks, leaves, pollen flowers, limbs and tent caterpillar debris. The trees were already here when we came, giving shade and once in a long while - bestowing a harvest.

Some of you live where pecans grow so you may have seen the green husks emerging in spring near the long yellowish pollen flowers. Maybe you've also watched the nuts develop as the husks swell all summer long. We had no experience with pecan trees until we saw husks form during our three summers at this house.
If you're a Texan or a Southerner you probably knew what the nuts should look like at harvest time - we had no clue. No edible nuts made it to harvest time here in 2004... or 2005... or 2006. We'd been in a period of drought so the husks were taken unripe by squirrels and only the 'empties' were left behind to fall off - no wonder the online articles didn't tell us how to get the nuts out of those thick green husks - Nature is supposed to do it! This year we finally saw how things are supposed to happen: the husks gradually open and dry up, with the points curling back, revealing the beautiful tawny nut inside. Instead of waiting for them to drop, we got on ladders and took any that looked close to ready before the squirrels got them. They were still hard to open and there were many empties or bad kernels. A post by Susan Albert clued us in that the nuts needed to be dried first. That made a big difference.We had to crack a lot of nuts to get good kernels but when the wonderful Divas of the Dirt showed up on Saturday the table had this arrangement of Texas-grown sunflowers from Whole Foods, and we had nut bread for breakfast - made with our own pecans.
[Thank you, Entangled for making that suggestion in a comment! ]

As a member of the Divas I get one turn a year to be hostess, serving breakfast and lunch to my friends. It's fun to cook for them, and we need fuel to work on whatever garden project the hostess has set up. My last turn was in February of 2006 when the Divas helped me transplant three spiraeas to start the bat-shaped bed. They also moved some large container plants from weather shattered clay pots to unbreakable containers. That day we had off/on rain and barely got to 50º.
This time the weather was sunny with a high of 90º. I asked my friends to get rid of some more lawn grass and enlarge the 28-foot long border along the fence where the Acoma crepe myrtles grow. The bed was too narrow, the edge was uneven and it had become shadier since the crepe myrtles finally 'took'.
Adding a foot-and-a-half along the front edge would make space to move sun plants languishing in shadow.

I won't tell the whole story of what happened on Saturday - that only happens once a year at the end of January on the Diva website - but here's how the long border looked today, after wind, rain and an overnight drop in temperature.
Something else dropped last night - the wind blew down the pecans from the top of the tree where our ladders couldn't reach. We picked up all that we could find, washed them and they're drying on racks in the garage.I hope the proportion of good nuts is high enough for more nut bread - or maybe a traditional Thanksgiving pecan pie.
Some other Austin gardeners have pecan trees, too - and have not had much of a harvest in previous years. Maybe MSS from Zanthan Gardens and Lee from The Grackle were lucky in 2007, too - is anyone else out there enjoying this bumper crop?
Edited October 24: The percentage of good nuts is pretty high - and my scientist husband notes that it's taking about 100 of them to make one pound of shelled pecans. Susan Albert sent a link to LSU's Ag Center with advice on how to store pecans. Thank you, Susan!

Monday, October 15, 2007

My Gardens ~ My Environment

Carol of May Dreams Garden invites us to share buds and blossoms on the fifteenth of each month, calling it Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. October 15th of this year has been named Blog Action Day with bloggers invited to post on the environment. I thought about both of these concepts as I wandered around with the camera, then flipped through old photo albums.
Philo & I enjoyed our first vacation as a family in 1970, driving from our small apartment in a Chicago suburb to a cottage in Wisconsin. We liked the lake, the trees and the hikes through the hills, and our toddlers had fun with their Tonka trucks, making roads in the soil around the porch, studding the ground with rocks and sticks. We were saving money to buy a house, one with soil for tomatoes and flowers, with shrubs and trees around it. It would be our own chunk of the greater environment...what Webster defines as the "air, water, minerals, organisms, and all other external factors surrounding and affecting a given organism at any time".

1970 was a year filled with war, destruction, monsoons, Kent State, space exploration, strikes, explosions and the break-up of the Beatles, but in ecology and the environment there were signs of hope: Mother Earth News was first published in 1970, Earth Day was declared for Sunday, April 22, 1970 and in December the Environmental Protection Agency was founded. The focus on insecticides and weedkillers intensified and by the time we had the down payment for that house the weedkiller DDT had been banned. The US government stopped using Agent Orange in Vietnam, and the connection to lawn weedkillers like 2 4-D became public. Robert Rodale spread the word on organic gardening in press and on television.

By the time we moved into our first house in 1973, it seemed logical to avoid pesticides and weedkillers on the land where our children would play, to use compost, to grow vegetables and fruit and to plant lots of trees, shrubs and flowers. It still seems logical 35 years later.
I like to read about everyone's gardens and it usually doesn't matter that we don't grow the same things, or live in the same zone or dig in similar soil. We can share a love of gardening without needing much in common.

But when it comes to advice about how to garden responsibly in a specific garden, something positive is needed - advice based in personal experience focusing on local information. Clipped and pasted pronouncements intended for general distribution may work in one place, and be useless somewhere else.
Allen Lacy told us, "It is impossible to write a book on gardening that is universal. Everyone gardens in the highly particular, on one spot of home ground at the intersection of this degree of latitude and that degree of longitude."

I miss those highway signs in Texas that encouraged us to 'Drive Friendly'. They seemed positive rather than negative, implying that people knew what was right if they followed their best instincts and were flexible about who got to the stopsign first. So I won't give you orders on what you should do in your garden, but let's look at some flowers as I share my attempts to 'Plant Friendly' on my little spot of home ground here in the NW part of Austin, Texas.

To have beauty without spraying I can choose plants with some built-in disease resistence - like the 'Julia Child' rose, with a bloom or bud in evidence every day since April.

It's not in my power to remove and replace every plant on the City of Austin's invasive list, but I can cut the flowers off nandina to prevent seed development and clip any berries I can reach from the ligustrum where it hangs over the fence from my neighbors' yard. I do this so the birds won't eat them and spread seeds in natural areas. I think a certain amount of flat green grass is necessary for comfort, as a design element, and for my sanity, so I won't dig up all of my casual, seldom watered, but acceptable-to-me lawn. [And like Carol of May Dreams, I actually like to mow.]

But I can and will shrink the lawn - we've already replaced some of it with plants for people, birds, bees and butterflies. Here's a garden for birds and butterflies, planted in the footprint where the Arizona Ash used to grow. Another thing I can do is to try out environmental ideas that take effort rather than money - like my in-progress seep garden to slow down storm runoff. Native plants Rivina humilis/pigeon-berry and White mistflower/Ageratina havanensis are young and still getting established.

I can learn to be flexible and take advantage of the unexpected in the garden - when a huge limb fell off the pecan last month all the shade plants were suddenly in sunlight.
The impatiens found space in shade near the Cast Iron plants and now the native Barbados Cherry/Malpighia glabra has enough sun to make buds.

I can try to water with care and attention and respect, appreciating the labor of those who came before us to this land of violent floods and killing drought to build the dams and reservoirs which make it possible for our city to thrive.

I'm willing to handwater my tropicals and other beautiful plants - like the clematis - this is a small garden and I think beauty is worth the trouble. But when choosing permanent landscape plants for the harsher western exposures, I'll look for tougher plants - native and adapted ones that need less supplemental water. That's what we did in a triangular area where the lawn turned brown too easily - the flowers in the pink entrance garden are doing well and are more fun.
When I talk to my neighbors I can tell them the reasons we won't use things like weed and feed while sharing divisions of plants from my borders. My neighbors may never be reconciled to the way I keep the lawn, but they may not be able to resist flowers, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Blooming off camera:
Moon Vine
Angel's Trumpet
Salvias greggii, leucantha and 'Nuevo Leon',
White ginger
Rock rose/ Pavonia

Edited October 23 - Mr Brown Thumb has gathered links to other garden blogs with posts for Blog Action Day.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Garden Blogger Bloom Day and Blog Action Day are rapidly approaching. While I struggle with those large concepts, here's a small post - and small is the appropriate size since what passes for a harvest here is paltry, in spite of 3 years of amending and working the soil, buying good quality plant starts and an abundance of water this summer.

Some plants grew well, but made little fruit - look at that pitiful Bell pepper. The fig tree finally started to grow - these four figs at once are a bonanza! We can't make sauces when one small tomato per week, pre-punctured by some critter, is the norm. This is the first year ever for an edible pecan - and it took nearly 40 inches of rain to get them. I cracked a bucketful to get the nuts on that plate - the rest were empty, not developed, or moldy. If you want to flavor food, we can offer rosemary, English mint, lemon thyme, basil, culinary sage, Mexican oregano, chives, Pineapple sage, parsley and Mexican mint marigold, AKA Texas tarragon, pictured above.
Instead of Bell peppers we can pick fiery Indian peppers or hot-as-blazes Mariachi peppers. Our garden could not sustain us for long - it's not a root cellar - it's more like a refrigerator containing nothing but condiments.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Autumn Wears Her Red Dress

We're still enjoying temperatures in the nineties each day, but the plants show signs that it is fall. One proof - the hummingbird garden has gone completely Red.
Tall white hardy Hibiscus, Shasta daisies and blue salvias dominate this area from May to September. I saw a few Texas Star Hibiscus flowers in summer along with the off-and-on red of the short-lived Hummingbird sage - probably Salvia coccinea. It blooms, sets seed, the original plant dies, and another pops up nearby.
The largest red-bloomer hasn't done much since last fall, but look what's happened to the Pineapple sage, Salvia elegans in the last few days:

Its flowers appear when the days and nights are close in length. This can happen in a mild spring when the plant is not frozen back, but is more usual in fall. Most salvias are useful in deer-resistent gardens, but not our deliciously-scented Pineapple Sage! We kept it in deck containers at our previous house.

The Chili pequin [Capsicum annuum, according to the Wildflower Center] still has lots of tiny peppers. Philo hasn't tried it yet, but one of the Divas told me her husband Warren pickles large quantities of the fiery little fruit each year.

Autumn wears a purple hat with her red dress in the photo above. 'Bat-faced' Cuphea llaevea has produced red/purple flowers since early summer.

A few purple berries remain uneaten by mockingbirds on the Callicarpa americana/Beautyberry below.

My attempts to make vines bloom in a crepe myrtle has had mixed results - no new Passionflowers to photograph, and the Hyacinth bean/Dolichos lab-lab is all pods now, dangling ten feet up in the tree.
One of the surest signs of autumn in my garden is the flowering of Barleria cristata, the Philippine Violet. Some sites say this is a native of India, not the Philippines, and not in the violet family, but belonging to Acanthus.The plant below started out as a 3-inch rooted cutting in March, and it's now about two-feet tall in partial shade. The flowering seems to be triggered by the shortening of the days as the Autumnal Equinox approaches.

Those of who garden in the Northern Hemisphere celebrated the autumnal equinox on September 23rd-- and now our blogs record and share what happens as fall arrives. It might mean cooler, shorter days, changing leaves and that slanting, autumn light.

In my mind the term autumnal equinox meant that the days and nights were of equal length, so it surprised me when Philo pointed out that here in Austin, our day & night actually became equal on the 27th, and our descent into winter didn't really begin until the 28th.

I'd already noticed the startling variation in the longest days of summer for the different places friends and family lived - just one of those things that color our individual relationship with our spot on the globe. Philo used Naval Observatory tables to chart a few US cities for me, arranged by latitude, North to South, so we can see how things change as you move toward the equator. He adjusted to Daylight time for summer and this data is for 2007.

This may be the point where you jump ship, but I enjoy mildly geeky statistics and bet some of you do, too:

The days and nights in Anchorage, Alaska reached equal length on September 25th. Seattle, Washington also had equal days and nights on September 25th.

San Francisco, California took another day to even up its days and nights as did

Chicago, Illinois - both had equal days and nights on the 26th.
Austin, Texas and Miami, Florida waited until September 27th.

Kona, Hawaii was a day later than the others, on the 28th.

That's pretty interesting, but this is the part that really gets me - day length variation:

In Anchorage [latitude N61º 13'] on the shortest day in winter, the sun rises at 10:14 AM and sets at 3:41 PM. On the longest day in summer, the sun rises at 4:20 in the morning, and stays up until 11:42 PM - so the difference in the shortest day and longest day is a whopping 13 hours and 55 minutes.

Seattle [latitude N47º 38'] sees sunrise on the shortest day of winter at 7:55 AM, with sunset at 4:20 in the afternoon; go to the opposite season and the sun rises at 5:11 in the morning, setting at 9:11 at night... what a nice long day for gardening, and the glow at twilight makes it seem even longer. Seattle has a difference of 7 hours 35 minutes between the longest and shortest days.

Chicago [latitude N41º 51'] has a 6 hour, 6 minute variation from longest to shortest days, with winter sunrise at 7:15 AM, winter sunset 4:23 PM, summer sunrise 5:16 AM, summer sunset 8:30 PM.

San Francisco [latitude N37º 46'] comes next, with a 5 hour, 14 minute variation from summer to winter; the sun rises at the winter solstice at 7:21 AM, sets at 4:54 PM. The sun rises on the longest day at 5:48 AM and sets at 8:35 PM that evening.

Day length in Austin [latitude N30º 17'] varies only 3 hours and 54 minutes from shortest day of winter to longest day of summer. Our winter sun rises at 7:23 in the morning, setting at 5:35 that night, not so bad for school buses. At the summer solstice, the sun rises at 6:29 AM, setting at 8:36.

Miami [latitude N25º 47'] daylength varies even less - only 3 hours and 13 minutes separate longest and shortest days. The sun comes up at 7:03 AM in winter, setting at 5:35 PM on the winter solstice. In summer the sun appears only a half-hour earlier, rising at 6:30 AM and setting at 8:15 PM.

If you're in the city of Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, [latitude N21º 19'] there isn't a lot of difference in winter and summer: only 2 hours and 36 minutes. This part of Hawaii has sunrise on the shortest day at 7: 04 AM, and the sun sets at 5:55 PM. The sun will rise only a quarter of an hour earlier on the longest day, at 6:50 AM, and the residents will get the extra 2+ hours at the end of their longest day - with sunset at 8:16 PM.

While these numbers were interesting in themselves, since we read blogs by people who garden in different places we might think about how day length affects humans and their gardens.

Back in Illinois the crows started cawing as the sun began to glow - waking us at 5 in the morning. Northern friends could rise early and fit in an hour on a vegetable plot before dressing for work. When we moved to Austin it was a surprise when it was still quite dark at 6 AM in midsummer, and we were often awake before the birds made a sound. [It was also a surprise to see Turkey vultures rather than crows!]

The people in the North get earlier frosts and shorter summers, but they also get used to having many more hours of daylight during the summer. Kona, Hawaii may miss out on the pleasant glow of long summer evenings, but those folks won't need headlights at 4 PM in December.

Do you think the variation in your shortest and longest daylength affects you?