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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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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Welcome Susan Albert and the Lifescape Blog Tour!

Today's post is written by Susan Albert - author of the China Bayles mysteries, set in the Texas Hill Country, and a series called The Cottage Tales, with Beatrix Potter. A couple of days ago more than thirty garden bloggers from all over the USA were part of the first "Spring Fling" held here in Austin. Meeting Susan at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center here in Austin was part of the fun! Today it means something extra special to be able to say...Wecome, Susan, to the Transplantable Rose!

“Unbecoming a Gardener”

A big thanks to Annie for hosting me here at Transplantable Rose today. This blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the sixteenth China Bayles mystery. China is a former criminal defense attorney who has opted for a quieter life as the owner of an herb shop in Pecan Springs TX. Of course, her life isn’t really very quiet (there are all those dead bodies!) but the time she’s able to spend in the garden helps reduce all that stress. That’s how it works for me, anyway, and for gardeners all over the world.

From Garden to Native Grasses

I’ve had a garden here in eastern Burnet County, on the northern edge of the Edwards Plateau region, for over twenty years. On the 31-acre place we call Meadow Knoll, I have tended a half-acre of garden, composted, mulched, saved my own seed and grown my own seedlings, experimented with new varieties, and canned my own produce. I’ve spent hours every day in the garden and loved (almost) every minute of it. (You’ll find a somewhat fanciful map of our place here.)

But I’ve grown older and creakier, my writing work takes more time, and we’ve acquired a second home—which means I’ve had to cut back. The veggies went first, since they were also irresistibly attractive to raccoons, deer, and various voracious insects. (Bet you know about that!) I stopped planting flowering annuals because they were work- and water-hogs. Then last year (2007), we got over 20” of rain in July, which did in many of the non-native perennials. We were gone in August and September, and since it didn’t rain during those months, the rest of the garden—except those brave old roses, survivors all—gave up the ghost. Instead of replanting, Bill and I spent most of the winter returning everything (except the roses, a few vines, and a daffodil border along the woods) to the native grassland from which we originally wrestled it. Enthusiastic and unrepentant, I plead guilty, as Sara Stein puts it in Noah’s Garden, to conduct “unbecoming a gardener”—a phrase that has a great deal of significance.

Wild Gardening

But I’m not garden-less, and I know I never will be. One of the things I’ve learned over my gardening years is that nature can do a lot better job of it than I can. She knows what grows best, where and when and how. So I’m turning it all over to her—the whole job, from planting to watering to growing. And having lived in this place and observed it for over two decades, here’s what I’m expecting from my Hill Country wild garden.

Color. In April and May, the fields and roadsides will be blue (bluebonnets and mealy sage), purple (winecups and redbuds), and pink (paintbrush). In June, there’ll be a blaze of yellows, reds, and oranges (gaillardia, coreopsis, and standing cypress, which grows along our creek and along the railroad tracks on the ridge). In July, the incredible blue of gentian, and blue ruellia, and in the fall, a burst of azure sage along the fence row. Oh, and goldenrod, and sunflowers and coneflowers and Englemann daisies—my, oh, my, all that astonishing gold.

Shape and form. Landscaping, I’m told, is all about shape and form. My wild garden offers plenty. In winter, there are the strong trunks and bare limbs of pecans and hackberries and mesquite—the mesquite decorated with hanging gardens of mistletoe. The firm, rounded shapes of Ashe juniper, the free-form sprawl of the mustang grape that grows along the fence, the spiny paddles of prickly pear, the spiky thrusts of yucca, the massed forms of Lindheimer muhly grass, the pyramids of bald cypress, bright with autumn color. I can’t take credit for any of it—all I can do is appreciate it.

Harvest. If beauty isn’t enough bounty, consider this. The yaupon holly and roughleaf dogwood that grows at the edge of the meadow provide a feast of red and white berries for the robins in winter, and the cedar waxwings will line up to strip the junipers of their generous purple fruit. The raccoons love the mustang grape in August, the lime-green hedgeapples in September, and the tart-sweet flameleaf sumac berries in November. The oaks and pecans feed the squirrels all winter, and the winter-tourist goldfinch love the dried sunflower heads. The hummingbirds adore the native salvias, Turks’ cap, desert willow, and fall obedience plant, and the native bees are wild about the buttonbush in the marsh and the buffalo gourd along the edge of the lane. The abundant fruits of that enormous buffalo gourd support whole communities of mice, voles, gophers, and such. (Recently, I found a cache of last summer’s seeds neatly tucked under a rock by some furry creature who must have forgotten where he put them.) The wild turkeys join the raccoons and squirrels in enjoying the mesquite seeds, dogwood and sumac fruits, and mustang grape. In the wild garden, there’s something for everyone, and—in a good year—enough to go around.

You get the picture. Instead of feeling that I have to go out and weed, I go for a walk. I don’t bother with loppers or shears. If the mustang grape wants to take over the fence, have at it, my friend, there’ll be more for the raccoons. I’ve hung up my rake, for the leaf litter is home to insects and microbes and lichens, the wild garden’s recycling team. And I don’t bother to spade, either, since the wind and birds and insects and animals carry seeds, and I’m learning to let them do the planting.

But please don’t think this change of heart and habit comes easily. I’m clinging to my old roses, I’m growing my favorite culinary herbs in a wheelbarrow, and I wintered over some really spectacular geraniums for the planter on the deck. But I’m no longer hostage to the garden. I’ve shifted into “admire” mode. I’m not only loving it, but finding it easier to live with.

I live in the country, and my wild garden is all around me, like a green embrace. But people who live in the city can enjoy their wild gardens along roadways, in vacant lots, in untended back yards, in far corners of the neighborhood park. It’s all in what you look for, you know. If the ungardening bug bites you, sit down for a spell with Sara Stein’s Noah’s Garden or (if you’re a Texan) Sally and Andy Wasowski’s Native Texas Gardens. That’ll give you something to think about while you resist rushing out to buy that exotic plant you just read about in one of those glossy garden magazines.

Thanks, Annie, for giving me a place to celebrate my wild garden. And thanks to all the readers who are following this blog tour through cyberspace. If you have questions or thoughts to share, post a comment. I’ll be around today and for the next couple of days to answer questions and carry on a conversation.

About the book drawing and Susan’s blog tour

If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of Nightshade go here to register. But you’d better hurry. The drawing for Transplantable Annie closes at noon on April 10, 2008.

Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.


  1. I've had this nagging feeling of guilt ever since we bought our place in the hill country. Because I have a background in landscaping, everyone keeps asking me when I'm going to "get started". The truth is, I adore my field of grasses that ripple in the wind, and watching for the new things that pop up every day on their own - right now there's a beautiful lavender verbena everywhere, and the yuccas sent up the most exotic flower stalks all at once. You have given me the resolve to stick to my guns. I will plant a few things up close to the house, but the rest is staying wild!

  2. Good, Becky, I'm glad! I still have a few islands of garden, but the rest is "going native." And I'm learning the native plants just as I once concentrated on knowing all about the domesticated plants (and exotics) in my gardens. Good luck!

  3. I have a gardening friend who is struggling with a similar issue, how to remake/rethink the garden for her elder years.

    I have a domesticated (uh, somewhat) garden close to the house, and enjoy the wilder garden further from the house. But I wonder if you have any trouble with invasive plants? If I just stopped gardening, I think I would have nothing but Tartarian honeysuckle, Japanese knotweed, and multiflora rose to look at in a decade. As it is, the battle is never ending, and I think they have the upper hand at this point.

  4. Susan,
    I have enjoyed your books! My favorite is Chile Death which is funny cause I am from Pennsylvania - not a lot of spicy food here. I have lived here all my life and just moved into a new home with no flower beds. My husband and I planted a lawn last year. I am planning to have planters and pots this summer - have to keep the Deer, Squirrels, & Bear from feasting. My daughter, who will be graduating from High School this June, had to do a Wildflower, Leaf and Insect project one summer. We gathered and identified 30 of each, however, the wildflowers were our favorites. This spring we were walking in our woods and found Wintergreen with the berries still on. As Spring approaches in the North, very slowly, 33 degrees this morning, we will be on the look out for our favorite wildflowers to bloom and see who is the first one to remember the name. I don't have a lot of time to spend in the garden...so I also enjoy Mother Nature's garden.

  5. Looking at the map of your lovely place I see that you had plenty to keep you very busy outside. While it must've been a difficult decision to give up something you obviously loved doing (and seeing), it does sound very sensible in light of your other commitments.
    I admit to ambivalence about our large gardens (veggies and flowers) when they demand so much of my time during the growing season. I'm sure it's wonderful for you having the freedom to go for a walk without feeling you should be out weeding or doing some other garden chore. I manage to fit in some walking and exploring, but not as much as I'd like to.
    I'm not ready to give up my garden yet (and can't imagine ever doing so), but I admire your courage to take that necessary (for you) step.
    Your natural garden sounds delightful!

  6. After last summer's drought, I have been thinking about changing my gardening style and including more native plants. They were the ones still blooming last year when we went almost 3 months without rain. I would see them on my walks to the spring on our property- wild bee balm, oxeye daisies, St. Johns wort, black eyed susan, yarrow, Queen Annes lace, and the field grasses swaying in the breeze. So I have decided to listen to the land and I too will be "going native."

  7. Kathy, re: invasive plants. Those plant bullies are a serious problem, and may require some drastic measures to get them under control. I'm a person who believes that the careful use of herbicides may be necessary to keep those guys from taking over. But that's a decision that each gardener has to make for him/herself. I've cleared back to the ground in many of my gardens, and will be using mowing as a control.

  8. Cscheller, I'm doing a lot more pots and planters this year, to brighten the area around the house. And I actively think of our woods as our "woodland garden," and have made a little sketch map of it to remind me from year to year what Nature has planted and where. Eventually, I hope to do a native plant inventory for my website. It's a different mindset!

  9. Kerri & Dawn, I think circumstances (drought, health--back problems!, family obligations) often push us to make changes in our gardening style and focus. I held onto an intensive gardening mode longer than I should have. It really feels good to relax into something new, but challenging in a different (and very good) way. I somehow feel more aligned with the land and the landscape now than I did when I was intensively "gardening."

  10. Susan, it was wonderful to meet you during the Spring Fling. Your book signing looked like a success. I hope you sold lots of books and enjoyed meeting your fans.

    I read with interest your tale of scaling back the garden and letting Mother Nature have a turn. While I can't do that in my small city garden (and wouldn't want to at this point), I do use a lot of native plants that lessen the amount of maintenance my garden requires. Now that natives are more commonly accepted in city and suburban gardens, more people should take advantage of the plants that are best equipped to survive with less attention from the gardener.

  11. Seeing well kept, planned gardens is quite a scene and very pretty to look at. However, there is something break taking about looking at a field full of Texas wildflowers!!! We have a circular butterfly garden in the front yard and I love it. All we do it trim it late Feb. and let it do it's thing the rest of the year. I would love to see some pics of your herbs in the wheelbarrow!

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  13. Susan - it was great to meet you at the Fling! If I lived on acreage, I'd do a big chunk of it as prairie (instead of my small prairie plant garden). It may be "ungardening" but, as you noted in one of the comments, maintaining a natural area means constant intervention to prevent the invasives from taking over. I don't think my village would appreciate it if I tried to stage a controlled burn in my front yard. :^)

  14. MMD, LOL here about controlled burns in front yards. It's true that without the weed whacker we'd be overrun (as Bill was saying just this morning). However, as I get older, I must admit to learning to tolerate a little more wildness. Don't know what that says about me or the wildness. But there is something lovely about all growing things, even the bullies. As I discuss this with people, I'm becoming increasingly aware of how much our gardens are driven by other people's expectations. Not saying anything about anybody here. Just saying.--Susan

  15. Like MMD, my neighbors would likely call the fire department if I attempted a controlled burn in my front yard, but long before that, they'd call the city about "my weeds". I still enjoy the gardening I do, and hope a decision to do less is a long way off for me. However, anything that can be planted or arranged to lessen the amount of pruning AND supplemental water is a good thing in any garden.

    (I enjoyed meeting you this past weekend and have enjoyed following the blog tour!)

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  16. Neighbors do have expectations, don't they? :)

    I've enjoyed reading two of Sara Stein's books, MY WEEDS and NOAH'S GARDEN. Look for them, when you get a chance. Or go here http://www.for-wild.org/download/stein2.html for a conversation with her.

    The dogs and I walked down by the creek this evening--the frogs are singing, the Louisiana iris I naturalized 15 years ago are in bloom, and the wild blackberry blossoms are spangled in the grass. A lovely, lovely sight.

  17. It's been fun to listen in on this conversation, Susan!

    While your garden has native plants waiting offstage, just hoping for a chance to perform, most native plants in my garden had to be purchased or were passalongs from a Hill Country friend. We did have ten-petalled anemones popup in the lawn - that was a nice surprise!


  18. This was an interesting post along with reading the comments and responses to them. Making sure the invasives don't overrun the wildflowers must be a challenge - I know it is in my back lane where I've scattered seeds these past There are now poppies, phlox and Dame's Rocket, but keeping out the Creeping Bellflower is the hardest thing.

    I am currently # 15 on the reserve list for our local library. It's doesn't say, but hopefully they'll have ordered enough copies so I don't have to wait until next Christmas to read Nightshade.

  19. Kate--#15! China feels quite complimented. If you get tired of waiting, you can read the first chapter on China's website:

    Hope you don't have to wait until Christmas--or even the Fourth of July!

  20. Susan, I thoroughly reading this post...and hearing about your journey to unbecoming a gardener...and imagining your green embrace; what a lovely metaphor. You do write beautifully and Iknow am going to enjoy starting your China B series.


  21. Thank you, Susan, for this wonderful post. The worst drought in the history of NC is coming to an end and I'm looking more seriously to native plants. I enjoy their independence.

    Thanks to you, too, Annie for bringing Susan to us.


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