Saturday, December 05, 2009


Back in January when we set up our garden projects, Annie set her date for mid-October. But things changed by fall - she sent the above photo of her September-blooming Oxblood lilies (they were Passalong plants shared with the Divas of the Dirt by MSS of Zanthan Gardens), reset the day for early November and we all crossed our fingers. A few days before we met, Annie sent out this call to action:

...mid 70's and sunny, sounds like a perfect day! What will make it even better is having the divas come visit and pretty up my yard!! The plan for the day is to do general clean-up, trimming of trees, raising some bricks, adding a few plants and planning for next spring. So bring those pole pruners and other tools of the trade

We arrived the next Saturday for a celebration of fall - complete with a scattering of colorful autumn leaves... artificial ones, of course since few trees add autumn color to Austin.

Annie's kitchen redo was now complete - the new cabinet doors had been distressed and glazed, and the beautiful new counters, faucets & fixtures and decor looked great. Once we were all present Annie scrambled eggs and served breakfast. Annie had a breakfast buffet ready - we piled the plates with melon, blackberries, pineapple, juices, hash browns, a streusel coffee cake and build-your-own breakfast tacos of tortillas, sausage, scrambled eggs, bacon, salsa, and cheese.

One more cup of coffee and we were ready to do her bidding.

A big part of today's garden day was pruning low hanging branches from the Chinese Pistache. It's an attractive, large tree that gives welcome shade but some long low branches had extended across the whole front yard, making it difficult to approach the house on the front path or to see out from the porch. The pole pruner has a long reach but it can't cut branches over a couple of inches in diameter. Some of these branches needed a ladder, a hand saw, muscles and patience.

There's something inspiring about that Pistache... back in 2005 a speeding car had crossed the front yard, first crunching into the tree then careening over to total Annie's parked car. The tree was younger and much smaller then and she'd worried about its survival.

While some Divas pruned, other Divas worked on the long front bed we'd made for Annie in 2006 and the rest tackled the big bed between the driveways. The drive bed definitely needed weeding, cutting back and mulching, and those bricks all needed to be pulled up and made level again.

But looking at it up close you didn't notice weeds or plants needing to be cut back - all you saw was a wealth of lovely flowers proving that Annie's green thumb has the rest of us beat:

Snapdragons that could have died over the terrible summer had bounced back with autumn and the gaillardia was reblooming.

A few years ago Annie rescued an African Foxglove/Ceratotheca triloba from a sale table. This is a rather tender plant that usually dies over winter but so far replacement seedlings have sprouted for her each spring.

The Duranta erecta/Skyflower was not a plant - it was a good-sized shrub. The flowers are sky blue but the berries are rich yellow, giving the plant its other nickname Golden Dewdrop.

Another unusual plant in Annie's garden is Turneria ulmifolia AKA Cuban Buttercup. Ulmifolia means "having leaves like an elm" which describes its foliage well.

The Salvia 'Hot Lips' in the front yard was very, very happy! This is perfect example of the Right Plant in the Right Place.

Here is Buffy pondering what she'll do first to get this bed back in order. Her thought processes are clear, but the background looks a little fuzzy, doesn't it? The parked cars and trash cans were so distracting I tried to erase them - should have asked a certain talented 12-year old relative do it for me!

The long day passed by in a whirl of work and conversation - broken somewhere in the middle by lunch - yummy French Dip sandwiches, shredded ramen salad, potato salad and a meltingly good Chocolate cinnamon cake topped by the kind of vanilla ice cream that has yummy vanilla bits in it.

We dealt with the piles of cut branches, getting the smaller stuff into recycling bags and tying up the longer branches into bundles for yard waste pickup.

Mattie's reciprocating saw made a big difference in how we got that job done!

Some Divas spruced up the front and some sawed and pruned the overgrown Vitex in the back.

None of us even thought about pruning either of these two plants on the fence near the gate - reaching up over the roof here is Annie's amazing Confederate rose blooming pink and a 12-foot tall treelike Pride of Barbados/Caesalpinia pulcherrima that Annie grew from seed. Her Confederate Rose is in the same family with Mallows and Hibiscus -its botanical name is Hibiscus mutabilis. Most sites give the mature height of a Pride of Barbados as 6-8 feet but labels mean nothing when Annie plants something in her rich soil, inside the protection of her fenced back garden with its SW exposure.

As a thank you gift Annie let us each take home one of the irresistible hanging ceramic plant rooters that had decorated the lunch table - I scooped this onion shaped beauty. If there's a gene for finding cool garden stuff - our Diva Annie definitely has it!

Monday, September 21, 2009


For my previous turn as hostess the Divas of the Dirt made the big native and adapted flower bed around the birdbath in the front yard. That was 18 months ago, in March of 2008.
It was exciting when this year's turn approached:

Sunday, September 13: "It's been a long, hot dry summer since we were chased by rainstorms at Karla's house last May. My Diva day is scheduled for next Saturday...[hope we don't] have to work around another rainstorm...thank heavens, avoided having it scheduled for yesterday!
Sophia ..wont be able to work with us [maybe] she can come to visit and eat with us...Oz & I have been gathering plants and supplies...[want a] drought-tolerant border in the part of the front parking strip that has the mailbox...went from being a part-shade Liriope bed to a mostly sunny, hot & dry area. After seeing the transformation of the parking strips at Karla's, Buffy's, Annie's and Sophia's my biggest wish is that we'll be similarly inspired once we're together! ...didn't water that part of the parkway at all this summer - let it get crispy - figured it would be easier to dig if most of the St Augustine grass was dead. Mindy, maybe you could bring the diamond hoe?..."

I had a yen to cook something French ever since seeing Julie & Julia but in recent years "Talk Like A Pirate Day" has become a kind of modern folk holiday, celebrated every year on September 19th. Combining these ideas led me to declare "Eat Like A French Pirate Day". After 5 years of decorating indecision the dining room finally had curtains and the table had new French-style placemats: The Divas arrived and we caught up on all sorts of interesting events (none of which belong on this blog) before breakfasting on Quiche Lorraine, Whole wheat French Toast, Paradise Juice, extra bacon, pineapple, strawberries, blackberries, watermelon and grapes -then aaarrgghh! It was time to mosey out into the pitiful front yard where the "hellstrip" awaited us.
Back in February 2005 we Divas had removed a sprawling Spiraea that swamped the mailbox, moving it to the Batbed. We added native Pavonia lasiopetala/Rock Rose, an Artemesia, Texas Betony/Stachys coccinea and native Scuttelaria suffrutescens/Skullcap to the existing liriope and a Salvia greggii on the south side of the mailbox. The Betony and Skullcap didn't make it, but the Rock Rose and Artemesia survived, a multitude of tree seedlings sprouted and the liriope grew thick. When an Arizona Ash died in early 2007 this area became hotter and sunnier, but it never looked that bad until the drought settled in during midsummer 2008. Now the liriope is burned from the western sun. The Divas decided to make the weed trees walk the plank, used a few swipes of the cutlass to cut back the perennials and then attacked the Liriope. Good grief! Once Mattie and Karla started digging the Liriope kept coming like a magician's endless string of handkerchiefs...some could be replanted along the sides of the street walkway where it was shadier, some could go home with whoever could use it, and some could go under the trees in full shade.Mindy's diamond hoe cleared the top of the bed, then hours passed as the long bed was dug and the soil sifted. Sophia had decided she was not well enough for even a short visit, so Mindy & I went to pick up the Mantis tiller at her house. Decomposed granite and Ladybug Revitalizer compost went into the cleared area and the tiller mixed it up. Plants were ready and waiting: a Texas mountain laurel, a Germander, Mexican Feather Grass, Gulf Muhly Grasses, Lilac-colored lantana, purple skullcap, Blackfoot daisies and creeping rosemary plants that are supposed to stay under 1-foot tall. A big stepping stone and a couple of smaller ones were set aside for a path. Oz and I had also picked up a wheelbarrow full of free rocks on Friday, thinking we might want to Rock This Bed. Buffy and Mindy gave it a try, but it just didn't look right with our housefront - guess the pink-toned rock will end up somewhere in the Pink Entrance Garden.
The main planting was looking good, with only mulching left to do so I went in to get the very late lunch onto the table.My only other request had been help with a new container ... but the other Divas were not satisfied with that! They thought the new bed looked so good it made the big oval bed they'd made in 2008 look shabby - soon Annie and Karla and Mattie had the edges of the birdbath bed trenched, the plants cut back and the whole thing was mulched. Our 3 PM meal followed the French Pirate theme, too: a concoction of Poblano sausage, chicken, tomatoes, rice, beans & the Cajun holy trinity was now " Jean Lafitte Stew", there was a loaf of homemade bread baked in my grandmother's bread pan, spicy French cheddar rounds were rechristened "Pieces of Eight", salad (or should that be Salade?), my husband's contribution of "Outer Banks Hot Pickles", iced tea with Meyer's Lemons picked fresh from the patio trees, as well as a family recipe for Chocolate Shortbread shaped into coins and Historically Correct Key Lime Pie for dessert.

There are many ideas about what constitutes Real or Original Key Lime Pie... some sites insist it must be graham cracker crust and have nothing like whipped cream or meringue on top. I'd found some cool historical sites that told of a man named Gail Bordon inventing safe & stable canned, sweetened condensed milk in the 1850's so people would not die from contaminated milk. Supposedly, people in the Keys had no cows - thus no milk or butter in those unrefrigerated times. The invention of canned milk let them use their limes for pie. Google the man and be amazed at his life story ~ then read this post from the Online Pastry Chef, discussing why a historically accurate pie would have been a pastry crust and why a pie made by thrifty people had to have meringue! My pie was made from the recipe at this site and we all agreed it was astounding!
The Divas quickly helped clear the decks (that Diva Annie insisted on washing dishes, too!) and then went back out to finish up - dollying bags of decomposed granite and Rose Magic Soil to Buffy along with some Saltillo tiles and the new pot. A dwarf Barbados cherry and a plant of culinary Marjoram were ready to plant, completing the Pirate theme. Did you know the island of Barbados was home to historical pirates and the herb Marjoram was the crop favored by "The Condensed Pirate", a tale found in my childhood's beloved Better Homes and Gardens Second Storybook?

Buffy got the tiles settled into the granite, then she and Mindy showed it who was captain of this garden! In the 5+ years we've lived here the center of this little bed has been amended and planted over and over without success - an Abelia, a Sago Palm, Spiderwort, Lambs Ears, Salvias, verbena and a hydrangea all failed in its tree-root choked soil ....maybe a big container can succeed. Around the outer edges some Oxblood Lilies from MSS of Zanthan are doing well, which makes me think other bulbs (like Texas-tough Grand Primo narcissus) should be added, too.
Next to the steps is another problem area - failures since 2004 were chrysanthemums, Japanese Aralia/Fatsia japonica, the usually tough Amarcrinum(!!!) and Hawaiian White Ginger. I bought a couple of dwarf yaupons/Ilex vomitoria and the Divas gave them a chance. They also decided to use the remaining bags of granite here - we need to get more but even this thin layer looks good!
Now when I come down the driveway the grass is still summer-killed, but patient Divas with rakes (thank you, Mattie) took off the top thatch, so when rain comes it can sink into the ground. This area needs another tree and perhaps a path. The remaining St Augustine can survive with a surprisingly low amount of water if it gets some shade. And when the plants in the beds are so interesting - who cares about grass anyway? Instead of wasting water trying to keep lawn alive in the sunbaked parking strip, less water can make the right plants grow and thrive, looking good while supplying habitat for bees and butterflies.
If the bird-attracting dwarf Barbados Cherry settles in happily I might be able to lurk on the veranda with my camera and snap feathered visitors coming for the fruit.
And every day when I stand on the steps I'll think about how wonderful it is to be a Diva of the Dirt, who has friends to change the view with layered plantings that make even a walk to the mailbox an adventure...the 'Mutabilis' rose they planted in 2008 is making new leaves and flower buds right now!
From the first Diva project here in October 2004 through last weekend, my wonderful garden friends have helped to make this house feel like a garden cottage.
Next up will be Diva Annie!

Monday, June 29, 2009


Sophia's garden day looked like a tough one:
"... just looked up the temp for Saturday-97 degrees! ...All I can offer is a little shade, cool beverages, and ... vinca to pull out (the sequel to (Mindy's) Bermuda Triangle!) We will be working in the front yard on the bed close to the house and ... in the sidewalk strip, make a bed there and top with decomposed granite... will have breakfast ready by 8:30 so we can get out there early enough for a cool breeze or two to hit us-ha!"
Diva-Annie was at Sophia's door when I pulled up - the scents from the kitchen were enticing! Sophia and her husband Roger were ready for the Divas of the Dirt.
We'd worked on the back garden for Sophia's 2008 project - doing the preliminary work on replacing the unhappy grass with a granite path leading to a seating area. The completed path looked great and I snapped a few photos in the morning light.

We'd worked back here in 2006 and 2008 - what fun to see this pretty, functioning shady patio garden unfold over the last few years!
The oatmeal pancakes were delicious and the hearty Potato-Egg dish enticing but the compote of fruit totally amazed us - Roger had combined fresh figs, peaches, blueberries and prosciutto in a killer combination with one of his special vinaigrettes.

Out in the front we agreed with Sophia - some of the grass in the parkway needed help and some of it should be torn out and better plants installed.

Grass didn't grow on the front edge - time for a redo - the Divas decided that although the separate, smaller beds with established plants looked pretty good, one large border surrounded by stone edging would be even better. Luckily Sophia and Diva-Annie had collected a wheelbarrow full of freebies because it was time to Rock this Bed!

Mindy's diamond hoe flew so quickly it looks like a blur as weeds and Bermuda grass disappear from the center area of the bed where the new plants will go.
All the tools are ready for turf-removal (some of it will be transplanted to the North end of the parkway), digging and mixing in amendments.
A garden hose outlines the interior shape of the new unified border. Sophia's front yard is overhung with a few large Cedar Elms - sometimes a pain for pollen and leaves - but their filtered shade lets in enough light for foliage plants and flowers while shielding the garden from the worst of summer's sun. With a little breeze even a day in the nineties was tolerable.
We weeded existing beds and Diva-Annie took on the task of digging up many square yards of invasive Vinca major which had started out as a rooted cutting from a friend but now had overwhelmed the fern bed near the front porch. Sometimes Annie had help, sometimes she worked alone, patiently working in the tangle, determined to free the ferns from captivity and make space for the beautiful caladium plants that Sophia had bought. Caladiums can usually take heat if they are in shade and Sophia has that! She also bought a couple of gorgeous hostas - if anyone can make them thrive in Austin it will be Sophia.

Everyone is a gourmet cook at this house! We'd been spoiled by Roger's culinary arts at previous meetings...this time he started the banquet with Caprese salad and a luscious Cantaloupe soup. Next came piquant pasta salad paired with Sophia's homestyle stuffed peppers. We were thrilled to hear that Sophia's son Mark had made a Tres Leches Cake for dessert. It seemed impossible that the amazing chocolate cake Mark made for us in 2007 could be equaled or surpassed, but his Tres Leches belongs on a pedestal...wonderful!

Mindy had suspected that the reason everything died in the parkway was the soil - what's put in by contractors is frequently the sandy loam nicknamed "Red Death" by gardeners. Her idea was to dig in amendments and raise the bed before making a new flower bed in the center of the parkway and replanting the far end with turf that was removed when the beds were joined together. We hope the resprigged parkway can make it.

On the other side of the walk the Divas used our new Mantis tiller to make everything ready, then built a cool foot path before adding plants. You can see the caladiums sitting ready in their pots near the front porch. This kind of shade is just perfect for those Aspidistra/Cast Iron plants near the tree trunks

At the South end of the unified bed are two 'Mutabilis' roses which had a rather drastic pruning. Taking out some of the oldest rose canes might let the adjoining Bauhinia regain its shape and the pruning should encourage the roses to rebloom in late summer or fall.
Before we left at 7PM that night we'd placed the caladiums but not planted them. I went back a few days later to take "after" photos and with the Divas' cars and tools removed from the view, saw a transformed landscape.
The new layered look with rock edging seems to work well for Roger & Sophia's front garden from the new parkway bedto the outlines of the new unified bed
to the shady area of ferns, hostas and caladium near the front door

There's a whole colorful world for Sophia and her family to enjoy!