New sedge lawnette planted, dry stream spiffed up

While the death of a tree — or any plant, really — is disappointing, even angst inducing, there’s always an upside: the opportunity to redesign and replant! One of our live oaks (pictured front and center) succumbed to hypoxylon canker last December, and after its removal I was startled by the openness at the front of the house. I also worried for my shade-loving shrubs and Japanese maple along the foundation.

And then I put my worry aside (I’ll just have to wait and see about the shade lovers, which are still protected by the house to the south and by the remaining trees to the west) and looked on the bright side: an opportunity to rip out the last little bit of lawn on our property. I’d kept that tiny lawn for two reasons: oak sprouts — bristly, suckering stems coming up from the mother tree’s roots — grew thickly under that live oak, and it was easier to mow them along with the grass than to hand-prune them out of a garden bed, and I liked the green negative space that the semicircle of lawn provided.

After the tree came down, I had the stump ground out. I’m hopeful that will eliminate the oak sprouts. If not, I’ll prune them as needed (sigh).

I hired a landscaper to dig out the St. Augustine grass and spread several inches of Lightening Mix from Advanced Organic Materials in Buda — my new soil resource since The Natural Gardener closed its soil yard.

I also ripped out the old metal landscape edging that bordered the dry creek around the lawn — a budget-conscious choice that I knew I’d eventually replace — and brought in small limestone boulders to edge the new planting bed and keep soil out of the dry creek.

To keep the negative space (a serene, green groundcover) I enjoyed with the old lawn, I planted evergreen ‘Scott’s Turf’ sedge (Carex sp.) from Barton Springs Nursery. When it fills in, it’ll be a meadowy “lawn” that doesn’t require mowing, edging, or nearly as much water. Just off-center, I planted a toothless sotol (Dasylirion longissimum) from Vivero Growers. Eventually it’ll echo the one in the metal pipe on the other side of the front door (see picture below) — like a shimmery, long-leaved Koosh ball.

To protect it from bucks aching to rub their antlers on beautiful plants and smash them to smithereens, I encircled it with rolled wire, nearly invisible, which I’ll remove in the spring. Leftover Mexican beach pebbles around the base of the sotol help with drainage for this dry-loving plant (instead of moisture-holding wood mulch).

Everyone asks me if I had the new bed bermed up. No, the live oak was growing atop the berm, and I believe it’s part of the natural topography of our lot, as several other clusters of trees are growing on berms in our yard. My guess is the house was built around the trees back in the early ’70s.

Drainage problems have driven most of my design decisions here. When it rains, runoff flows down the circular drive back toward the house, and water used to pool in our front walk. We replaced the old walk with poured-in-place concrete strips surrounded by gravel that allows water to soak into the soil. Now, runoff from the driveway flows into the dry creek, and a sump pump in the gravel courtyard behind us pipes excess water into the creek as well.

Where the old steel edging once lined the dry creek, limestone boulders now provide a more natural look.

I had my landscaper dig a trench to set them at least one-third of their height into the soil.

Here’s the long view from the corner of the house. Soon the dormant river ferns in the foreground will be unfurling new fronds.

Here’s the other toothless sotol I have, growing in a steel pipe in the gravel courtyard. What a beauty this plant is! Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) and ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo add to the linear combo.

I’m going to plant pink rain lily bulbs (Zephryanthes ‘Labuffarosea’) amid the sedge this spring and cross my fingers that the deer will leave them alone. No such luck with the oxblood lilies I tried a couple of years ago, but perhaps the rain lilies will prove less tasty.

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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

2/25/17: Come to my talk at the Wildflower Center. I’ll be speaking at the day-long Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. My talk is called “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” and it’s about creating water-wise home gardens that don’t sacrifice beauty. The symposium is open to the public. Click here for registration. I’ll be offering signed copies of my books, The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone!, after my talk ($20 each; tax is included). I hope to see you there!

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. The upcoming talk with James deGrey David has sold out, but join the Garden Spark email list for speaker announcements delivered to your inbox; simply click this link and ask to be added. Subscribers get advance notification when tickets go on sale for these limited-attendance events.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Final fall foliage as winter’s icy breath freezes Austin

Austin plummeted from a high of 80 F (26.6 C) yesterday afternoon to 26 F (-3.3 C) this morning, and today the Japanese maple is clinging shiveringly to far fewer leaves than yesterday, when I took this photo. That’s Texas winter weather for you.

In preparation for the coming Arctic blast, I sweated yesterday for an hour in short sleeves moving tender succulents into the garage and covering with sheets any that are too big to move.

A blue norther (a strong cold front blowing in from the north) swirled into Austin around 8 pm last night, in the midst of holiday party hopping. The wind lasted through the night, and I fear it blew off some of the plant-protecting sheets, but it’s cold enough that the sheets might not have helped anyway. I hope the variegated flax lily (in the foreground) will be OK. I never cover it — I have too much — but it doesn’t like sustained subfreezing weather.

Of course the native and adapted plants, like river fern and Japanese maple (and most of my plants), will be perfectly fine and don’t need any special protection. The native ferns will die back to the ground and the maple will drop its leaves until spring returns in a couple of months.

Other fall-colorful plants, like chile pequin, will shrivel and go dormant too.

Moonlight-yellow flower spikes on the forsythia sage (Salvia madrensis) yesterday — farewell!

Pink abutilon blooming yesterday. It likes cool weather, but a few hard freezes may shrivel it too.

In the pond, dwarf papyrus has surprisingly wonderful fall color. I photographed it yesterday before dropping the pot to the bottom of my raised container pond to give it some protection from the cold.

I’ll pull it back up to the surface on Wednesday, when temps return to normal — i.e., comfortably above freezing at night — but the beautiful flowerheads will be limp and brown. No worries! They’ll be back next year.

Here’s hoping the hard freeze zaps a lot of mosquitoes and other pests. We didn’t get a hard freeze last winter, and our summer gardens were jungly and the bugs were fierce. We needed this.

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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Need a holiday gift for the gardener, new homeowner, or environmentalist on your list?
Please consider giving one (or both!) of my books. They’re packed with plenty of how-to info for newbies as well as lots of inspirational photos and design ideas for more experienced gardeners! Order today from Amazon (Water-Saving Garden / Lawn Gone!) or other online booksellers (Water-Saving Garden / Lawn Gone!), or find them anywhere books are sold.

“In an era of drought and unpredictable weather patterns, The Water-Saving Garden could not come at a better time. With striking photographs and a designer’s eye, Penick shows us just how gorgeous a water-wise garden can be. This is the must-have garden book of the year!”
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All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Blazing oxblood lilies, new Moby, & cool bugs

Wow, what gorgeous weather we’ve been having: sunny, low humidity, and perfect for getting outside, whether to plant, doze in a chair, or just gaze at the garden as it moves into its second spring. The showiest plants in my garden this week are the oxblood lilies (Rhodophiala bifida) massed in the raised beds behind the house. They come up around the toothy, fleshy leaves of soap aloe (Aloe maculata).

Red against blue, with the early ripening red “berries” of native chile pequin (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum) behind. Echoing the shape of the sun person’s head…

…predatory wheel bugs were mating among the Philippine violet leaves yesterday. I’d never encountered a wheel bug in my garden before, so this was a cool sighting!

Another buggy update: Shelob, the bigger of the garden spiders in the lower garden, is doing well, her web highlighted by the setting sun.

But Aragog, the slightly smaller sister, is nowhere to be seen, and her web is in tatters. I wonder if she got eaten?

Moving on…the Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata aztecorum) and bottle tree glow in late afternoon.

I planted Moby‘s replacement yesterday: another whale’s tongue agave (A. ovatifolia), a wavy-leaved cultivar called ‘Vanzie’, which was a gift from Nathan at Hill Country Water Gardens & Nursery. Thanks, Nathan! ‘Vanzie’ looks tiny now (although it’s a bit bigger than Moby was when first planted), but it’ll grow quickly.

I’m filling in around it with silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’) — thanks for the suggestion, Bob Beyer — which may not make it through the winter if we have a sustained cold snap or two. But hopefully we’ll have another mild winter, and it’ll come back strong next spring.

Here’s another view of ‘Vanzie’ (in the background) but also the bloom spike of ‘Bloodspot’ mangave. I nearly cut the bloom spike down a few weeks ago, but I’m glad I left it because now bulbils (baby clones of the mother plant) are growing on it!

There are only three bulbils so far, but I’ll give it a few weeks to see if it makes more. And then I’ll harvest them as replacement plants for the mother plant, just as I did with Moby’s recently.

I was given a beautiful Mexican olive (Cordia boissieri) earlier this year from Betty Perez of McAllen, Texas. Betty and Colleen Hook of Quinta Mazatlan invited me to deliver the keynote presentation at Planta Nativa, McAllen’s native plant festival, this October. They were in Austin this spring and visited my garden, and that’s when Betty gifted me with this pretty little tree, native to South Texas, which she grew from seed at her ranch.

It recently suffered an unfortunate amputation of half its branches when my DH was trimming tree branches over the roof and one fell in just the wrong spot. It still looks pretty in a chartreuse plastic pot mulched with Mexican beach pebbles.

Thbbbbttt! That’s what’s happening in my garden this first true week of autumn. How about in yours?

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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Austinites and native-plant shoppers, I’ll be at the member’s day Fall Plant Sale at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on Friday, October 14, and I hope to see you there! I’ll be signing books from 1 to 3 pm in the Wild Ideas gift shop. If you’re not a member, of course you can still come on out and see the gardens and stop in at Wild Ideas. Hope to see you there!

South Texans, come see me at the 2nd annual Planta Nativa festival in McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, October 22. I’ll be delivering the keynote talk, “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” that evening. Tickets are on sale at Quinta Mazatlan. I hope to see you there!

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.