Plano Prairie Garden alight with fall color

Sometimes you just luck into a great garden visit. Last weekend my family and I drove up to Dallas for the state fair, staying overnight at my father-in-law’s house in Richardson, a northern suburb. The day we left Austin I realized that we would be staying very close to Plano, another Dallas suburb, so I contacted Michael McDowell of Plano Prairie Garden, a blog I’ve been following for a couple of years, and asked if I could pop by. Oh, and could it be at 8 a.m. on Sunday (before my family got going for the day)? A good sport, Michael agreed, and so I found myself driving up to his suburban home, an island in a sea of traditional lawns, where his gorgeous garden was in full fall bloom in the magical light of early morning. How lucky can you get?

Michael’s prairie garden is an anomaly in his neighborhood, which is ironic considering the neighborhood’s name, Prairie Creek. He began digging out his St. Augustine/Bermuda lawn when he moved in, about 7 years ago, gradually expanding from the foundation to the curb. Today his front and back yards are lawn-free, with decomposed-granite paths running through prairie-style gardens. Only a narrow carpet of lawn grass remains, in a skinny side yard and along the alley where he parks, and I have a feeling its days are numbered.

The largest part of his garden is 3 years old, the “leaping” year according to gardening lore. Even after this summer’s terrible heat and ongoing drought, with a watering regimen of once every 7-10 days, his xeric garden was full and flowery. Recent cooler weather and 4 inches of rain prompted it to burst into bloom, just in time for my visit! Lucky, right?

The purple spires of gayfeather (Liatris mucronata or punctata) may have been the star of the show, although they had serious competition from the salvias, not to mention the ornamental grasses.

The coppery, upright foliage of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) threads its way through the front garden, adding continuity, texture, and fall color. Michael said it’s half the height it normally would be because of the drought, but I liked the small size. Hot-pink Autumn sage (Salvia greggii) looks especially pretty next to it.

In a wider view, you can see liatris in front and a glowing pink agastache behind.

A close-up of the agastache

Rich purple wands of liatris add vertical spikiness.

Michael uses succulents like this pale-leaf yucca (Yucca pallida) and spineless prickly pear (Opuntia) to add evergreen structure, which anchors all his billowing, fine-leaved perennials.

Opuntia, little bluestem, Salvia coccinea, and pale-leaf yucca

Close to the house, Michael recently added an Austin-style feature: a stock-tank bog planter filled with horsetail (Equisetum hyemale). Michael said one of his neighbors remarked skeptically that maybe it should have stayed in Austin. Naturally, I loved it.

I also love this picture because it captures the prairie gardener himself reflected in a window. He was standing beside me as I snapped away, thinking to stay out of the frame—ha! The beautiful grass in front is pine muhly (Muhlenbergia dubia), a native grass from west Texas.

Salvia coccinea and Yucca pallida

Magical morning light

A tighter view

And looking down you see mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea) with pink skullcap (Scutellaria suffrutescens) behind it.

Cheerful, petite, nearly ever-blooming hymenoxys (Tetraneuris scaposa) catches the sunlight.

More liatris, with Salvia greggii behind and Gregg’s mistflower (Conoclinium greggii) in front

Monarchs love Gregg’s mistflower at this time of year.

Michael’s small back garden blazed with fiery Salvia coccinea, a sight sure to delight any straggler hummingbirds on their way south.

We spotted this queen butterfly on a shoulder-high frostweed (Verbesina virginica).

On first glance I thought this was a kidneywood tree (Eysenhardtia texana) in full bloom, but Michael informed me that it’s beebrush (Aloysia gratissima). Both are honeybee-attractors, and they have a similar airy habit and tiny, white flowers.

Fall aster (Aster oblongifolius) will bring in the bees too.

Other beneficial insects are also welcome in Michael’s garden, like this wasp on goldenrod (Solidago).

Faded chocolate daisies (Berlandiera lyrata) are as beautiful as fresh ones, to my eyes.

Fragrant mistflower (Eupatorium havanense), also known as shrubby white boneset, was covered with buds. This is a Halloween bloomer in my garden, and its ghostly white flower clusters attract butterflies by the dozens.

Hercules’ club tree (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis) was new to me. I like its glossy, notched leaves, but watch out for those thorns that give this plant its name.

Michael transplanted aggressively spreading snake herb (Dyschoriste linearis) from another part of his garden into his hell strip in early summer, and it quickly colonized this difficult area. It dies back in winter, he told me, and he whacks it back before spring to neaten it up.

Michael generously shared several plants with me, including a good-sized pine muhly, with which I’m not as familiar as Lindheimer’s and Gulf muhly. Pine muhly was one of his best-performing grasses during this challenging summer, he told me, along with bushy bluestem, little bluestem, and seep muhly. (I didn’t notice any Mexican feathergrass in Michael’s garden.) Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) suffered badly from the drought, and he said he’ll be pulling it out.

Thanks to Michael, I learned about several native Texas plants I’d not encountered, and saw firsthand the beauty of a prairie garden and just how much life it attracts compared to the lawn deserts that surround it. His design sense (repetition of plants, use of structural plants, well-designed and generous paths) impressed me too. He mentioned that he doesn’t always get it right the first time, but he’s not afraid to move plants around until it looks right. I asked if he ever just sat in his garden to admire it, especially at this time of year, but like most gardeners he just laughed and asked, “Sit?”

I also admired his fearlessness in trying something new. Before moving to his current home, Michael had a garden where he grew a lot of antique roses. But he wanted to try a prairie garden here, with mostly native plants that would attract wildlife (a quality roses lack), and he threw himself into it, doing all the work himself a little at a time. He didn’t let a lawn-loving neighborhood aesthetic stop him either, although he does strive to keep things neater out front than in back for the sake of the neighbors. Now he reaps the rewards, with a low-water garden that is beneficial to wildlife and delightful to visitors as well. Thanks, Michael, for sharing your garden with me!

If you’d like to know more about Michael’s garden, visit his blog, Plano Prairie Garden, and click to read a Dallas Morning News article about his garden from last summer.

All material © 2006-2011 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Orcas, eagles & scenic views in the San Juan Islands

A chilly, misty, 6 a.m. ferry ride across the Rosario Strait late last month spirited me and my family from Anacortes, north of bustling Seattle, to charming Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, part of the archipelago known as the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited, San Juan Island turned out to be the relaxing centerpiece of our Pacific Northwest vacation.

When we got off the ferry it was too early to check into our cabin outside of town, and the shops in Friday Harbor were still closed, so we drove our rental car up to Lime Kiln Point, a state park on the west side of the island known to be a good whale-watching spot. Along the way we saw this bald eagle perched high in a tree.

Our national bird, looking quite regal. When we got to Lime Kiln around 7:30 am, we—I laugh to admit this—felt so sleepy that we all took a nap in the car. We awoke 2 hours (!) later, refreshed but hungry, and without even getting out to see the park or its famous lighthouse, we decided to head back toward town and perhaps get a bite to eat. But just south of the park we glimpsed a scenic view and saw a pullout for Dead Man’s Bay. It was a bright, beautiful day, and we couldn’t resist seeing the view. Scrambling down a rocky trail, we found a deserted, pebbly beach and tide pools alive with fish, crabs, and small jellyfish. My husband and the kids went off to investigate the tide pools, and I sat on a water-bleached tree trunk, camera in hand, gazing out at the sparkling water and watching ships and boats go by.

And then it happened: I heard a “Fwoosh” and spotted a tall, black dorsal fin disappearing below the surface.

I jumped up and yelled “Orcas!” at my family, pointing past them at the water. A pod, or extended family, of killer whales was passing by, not 150 yards from shore. “Fwoosh, fwoosh” came the sound from their blowholes as each one surfaced to exhale and take another breath.

It was thrilling!

Whale-watching speedboats and other boats zoomed over to watch them too, but there on the beach, we had them all to ourselves. We listened to them breathe and watched them arcing through the water. After 10 minutes or so they disappeared. We stayed on the beach and 30 minutes later were rewarded with the sight of yet another pod passing by.

Three resident pods live in Puget Sound and dine almost exclusively on salmon around the San Juans, Victoria, B.C., and Vancouver, B.C. Transient pods of orcas arrive in the summer months; they eat sea mammals like seals and other types of whales (hence the name “killer whale”), as well as sharks and anything else they can catch (not people). They do not mingle with the resident pods but keep their distance, almost like a separate species. These are highly intelligent, long-lived creatures, and each pod has its own “dialect” and is led by a matriarch, whose offspring, male and female, stay with her for life.

We saw a few calves as well. See the little dorsal fin beside the larger one?

After that magical experience, we headed to Friday Harbor, where we spotted this sign advertising whale-watching excursions.

The harbor

And this figurehead

Later we visited the south side of the island and saw more pretty vistas at Cattle Point.

California poppies and grasses glowed in the late afternoon sun.

Spiky thistles were in bloom.

Mt. Baker in the Cascade Range stands tall over Lopez Island.

At the end of the day, Lime Kiln Point is the place to be for sunset views.

Lime Kiln Lighthouse is named for nearby kilns. Lime kilns on the island were important suppliers for the concrete and mortar used to rebuild San Francisco after the earthquake and fire of 1906. Sadly, keeping the lime kilns burning contributed to the deforestation of the island and subsequent erosion. A hundred years later, thankfully little of that damage is visible today.

The sunset views at the west-facing lighthouse are stunning. That’s Canada in the distance.

We joined a quiet group of sunset-watchers and some romantic-minded couples.

When the sun slipped behind the distant islands, we headed back to our cabin. That night we took the kids outside to look up at the stars, thickly strewn across the black sky, and saw the white trail of the Milky Way.

Up next: More whale-watching from Vancouver. For a look back at our visit to the Ballard Locks in Seattle, click here.

All material © 2006-2011 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Majestic Mount Rainier National Park

During our vacation in Seattle at the end of July, we rented a car and drove to Mount Rainier National Park, about 2-1/2 hours southeast of the city. Snowcapped even in summer, Mt. Rainier is the highest peak in the Cascade Range at 14,410 feet. The day we visited, the mountain was not only “out” but appeared to loom over the road. Just look at it, framed against a blue, blue sky. Magnificent!

We stopped at a pull-out along the highway to admire the view. The air was cool, and last winter’s deep snowfall, thanks to an extended chilly spring and summer, was still piled up along the road, making a mini-mountain in the foreground.

Quite a view on all sides…

…from the grand…

…to the small. The summer wildflowers that Mt. Rainier’s meadows are famous for had been delayed by the lingering snow and an unusually cool summer, we were told. While we missed the big show, we did see a lot of these tiny glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) poking up out of the snow.

After driving up to Sunrise Visitor Center and eating a picnic lunch in the warm sun, with snow all around our picnic table (yes, snow in July!), we drove on to Grove of the Patriarchs, an island of Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock trees, some an incredible 1,000 years old, surrounded and protected from fire by the Ohanapecosh River.

From the grove, we hiked along the Ohanapecosh to thundering Silver Falls, swollen with snowmelt.

We stood and watched it tumble and roil for a while…

…and then it was time to head back. It was a short visit, but an enjoyable one. We felt lucky to have seen the mountain on such a beautiful, clear day.

Up next: A visit to Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, where we saw salmon swimming up the fish ladder. Click here to see the Seattle Japanese Garden.

All material © 2006-2011 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.