RIP, wren chicks — you were no match for a rat snake


Tragedy for the wrens raising week-old chicks in a birdhouse I’ve been observing from my office window. Yesterday morning, as I sat down at my desk, I looked out to check on the little family — I’ve been watching the parents feeding the chicks — and something looked strange. I got up for a closer look and gasped as I realized a snake was coiled inside the birdhouse, its scaly side blocking the doorway.


Just the day before, I’d photographed the wrens feeding their peeping chicks.


But overnight, apparently, a rat snake had Houdinied its way up the side of the house (yes, rat snakes can climb brick walls), about 8 feet from the ground, and across a foot of space to reach the birdhouse opening on the side facing away from the wall. It was quite a feat.

I was on deadline for a writing assignment, so I camped out in my office all day, looking up periodically in hopes of seeing the snake emerge. But the darn thing stayed put all day long, only occasionally shifting position and revealing the tip of its tail.


Finally I left to make dinner, and afterward I popped back into my office for another look. It was dark outside, so I had to use a cell phone flashlight to see — and I spotted movement. “The snake’s coming out!” I yelled, and everyone came running. The pics are blurry because it was dark, but you can see the snake stretching for the brick wall while still anchored in the hole. Amazing.


Our lights and activity startled the snake, and rather than risk a tricky descent it retreated back into the birdhouse, slithering in like an octopus squeezing itself through a hole.


Going, going, gone. And so are the wren chicks, sadly. But snakes have to eat too, and it’s been fascinating to watch. Being wildlife friendly means accepting nature’s brutality, which was happening even with the wrens as they fed live caterpillars and other insects to their young. I won’t kill a snake in my garden unless I feel it poses a danger to my family, and rat snakes are harmless to humans and largely beneficial, as they do hunt rodents.

Still, it’s painful to lose the wrens.

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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

The Austin Daylily Society will host a free garden tour on Sunday, May 28, from 10 am to 2 pm. Four private gardens featuring lots of daylilies will be open to the public, including Tom Ellison’s lovely Tarrytown garden.

Calling all pond lovers! The Austin Pond & Garden Tour is coming up June 3rd (North Austin ponds and night pond) and 4th (South Austin ponds). Tickets, which are $20, can be purchased online and include entry to all 20 ponds.

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by talented designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

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

New shade sails and other garden goodness


We’ve always wanted shade for our deck, which is one of the few spots in our yard not overhung by live oaks. Facing south, it gets blasted by the Death Star all day long, and even our kitchen table overlooking the deck gets unpleasantly toasty by midafternoon.

A solution has proven tricky. The back of our 1970s ranch sports an unlovely variety of rooflines, making it difficult (and expensive) to build a pergola or attach an awning for sun relief.


Shade sails to the rescue! We’d thought about installing shade sails over the years but couldn’t find a local pro who’d take on a smaller residential project like ours. (Shade sails are popular in Austin in commercial or schoolyard settings, where they are used to shade playgrounds, sport courts, and restaurant patios.) We looked into ordering a sail from Coolaroo and hanging it ourselves, but so many DIY sails end up looking like loose, flappy tarps, and we weren’t confident in our ability to anchor it so that a strong wind wouldn’t rip it off our house — or rip a fascia board with it.


Happily, I finally found a professional installer right at the time we were refinishing our deck. Greg at Mueller Highlife custom ordered and installed two shade sails for us, one floating over the other, which function as a modern awning for our windows and back door and partially shade the deck.

For full shading, I could have ordered a larger rectangular sail, but I was determined not to block our view of the tree canopy, which we enjoy from our kitchen/dining windows. So we sacrificed on maximizing shade in return for an unobstructed view from indoors, and I’m happy with the compromise. And Greg did a great job, so give him a call if you need a sail for your yard.


Garden-wise, I’m enjoying all the beauty of late spring, including the beautiful flowering of a potted cactus.


It’s always incredible to me that spiny, seemingly inhospitable cacti can put forth these luscious blossoms.


The stock-tank pond is always a source of pleasure during the warmer seasons.


In Moby’s old spot, the new whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia) is settled in, with silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea) and pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) filling in around it. In the lower terrace, ‘Macho Mocha’ manfreda, ‘Frazzle Dazzle’ dyckia, and a volunteer datura are ready for summer’s impending heat.


Moby 2 and pineapple sage


From the upper patio, here’s the succulent-filled cinderblock wall.


And the tentacle wall is coming along with the addition of a blue, beaded cephalopod from my friend Linda in San Antonio (to the right of the chartreuse pot).


Out front, ‘Green Goblet’ agave is recovering from deer-antlering damage in a bed of woolly stemodia (Stemodia lanata), with a mullein’s yellow flower spike echoing the yellow blooms of Jerusalem sage in the distance.


I hope you’ll be enjoying your garden too this weekend!

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Mark your calendar for the Inside Austin Gardens Tour on May 6, sponsored by Travis County Master Gardeners. This fun garden tour occurs every 18 months and features a mix of homegrown gardens “for gardeners, by gardeners,” as their tagline says.

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. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

How to prune clumping bamboo


I’ve known many people who are afraid to plant any kind of bamboo, even a clumping type, for fear it will take over their yard — and with good reason. Here in Austin, many a back yard is clogged with running bamboo, which is often planted for privacy along a fence but quickly metastasizes, spreading across the lawn and into the neighbors’ yards as well.

Clumping bamboos, however, don’t “run,” making them garden-safe.* Even so, they grow vigorously enough to require regular pruning in order to look their best. Take ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo, for example (pictured here). I usually prune it twice a year, in late spring and early fall, to keep it from looking like a shaggy green beast and to give it shapely definition. Here it is in beast mode (above) — lots of leaves amid a thicket of culms (the canes) that are arching over the gutters and blocking a window.


And here it is after an admittedly exuberant pruning. I removed about a quarter of the culms entirely, all the way to the ground (never cut them off halfway, which causes ugly side growth), and limbed up others, revealing the green-and-yellow stripes on the exposed canes.


I start by trimming off the side branches that grow along the culms, starting at ground level and pruning up to just above my head. How high up you prune should depend on the height of the bamboo. You do still want to have plenty of leaves up top to keep the plant healthy.


Using a pair of sharp bypass pruners, clip off the stems close to the culm, holding onto them with your free hand to keep from making a mess below. Just toss them in a bin for composting later. And be careful not to nick your free hand with the pruners!


I use a long-handled pruner for getting into the culms and pruning out weak ones or those leaning over the gutter. I also thin out culms that spread beyond the original planting.


And that’s it. It’s a pretty Zen activity, really. Here’s another look at the overgrown beast, before pruning. Nothing wrong with this, of course, if you need a green screen that won’t run, but it’s too much for a small space like this one.


And here it is after an hour of pruning. Leggy, airy, and out of the gutter!

Here are a few more bamboo-pruning resources:

I first learned about limbing up bamboo on the Austin blog Growing Optimism, which also features a nifty bamboo-and-zip-tie fence to hold leaning canes away from paths: Growing bamboo in a narrow space – pros, cons, and a solution for support

For expert advice, watch Cass Turnbull of Plant Amnesty explain how to prune bamboo: How to Prune Bamboo – Instructional Video w/ Plant Amnesty

Also, watch Austin’s own Merrideth Jiles share his extensive knowledge of bamboo, including pruning tips, on Central Texas Gardener: Bamboo Basics | Merredith Jiles |Central Texas Gardener

And finally, here’s a helpful list of clumping bamboos for Austin from The Great Outdoors nursery. By the way, although TGO’s guide says bamboo needs to be watered twice a week during Austin’s summers, I have not found this to be true in my garden. Once a week works fine for my established bamboos ‘Alphonse Karr’, ‘Tiny Fern’, and, to a lesser extent, Mexican weeping bamboo.

*Note: Clumpers do gradually expand but not aggressively. Please, do your research to learn which is which before buying. I can’t think of any reason to plant a runner, frankly.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
_______________________

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Mark your calendar for the Inside Austin Gardens Tour on May 6, sponsored by Travis County Master Gardeners. This fun garden tour occurs every 18 months and features a mix of homegrown gardens “for gardeners, by gardeners,” as their tagline says.

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. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

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