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Sunday, October 6, 2019

Save Monarchs. Cut Back Tropical Milkweed Now.

I know the weather doesn't seem like it, but it IS fall here in the Austin area. According to the Journey North database, the Monarch winter migration to Mexico has started and should pass through here any day.

Monarchs are a beloved insect and much attention has been paid to their declining numbers. In an effort to help them, many homeowners have rushed to plant milkweed in an effort to supply larval food to their hungry hoard of caterpillars. These good intentions mean that retail nurseries have rushed to supply plants to meet demand.

Unfortunately, the easiest milkweed to propagate is the tropical variety, Asclepias curassavica. While it does serve as a host for the caterpillar, the trouble comes because it is planted outside of its native Mexican range and can disrupt the Monarch migration. According to Monarch Joint Venture, in parts of the U.S. that don't have winter freezes, the year-round presence of tropical milkweed allows monarchs to breed throughout the winter. "These year-round tropical milkweed patches foster greater transmission of the protozoan Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), increasing the likelihood that monarchs become infected with the debilitating parasite. Therefore, we recommend that tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) should be cut back in the winter and fall months in the southern U.S. and California, and should be gradually replaced with native milkweeds as they become available."

The trouble is not just from the parasite. Here in Austin the Monarchs face food shortages. Native milkweeds have gone dormant for the summer and will not start to grow until moisture returns. Caterpillars who have not pupated will either starve or die in the cold. Adults don't fair any better. Most native nectar producing plants have gone to seed, limiting the adult food supply. Adults are also in danger of dying from the cold since they have not reached their winter home.

So what is to be done? You can help by doing the following:

If you have tropical milkweed in your garden, cut it back now to about 6 inches in height and keep cutting it back every few weeks as leaves re-sprout. It will die completely back if we get a freeze and will sprout again in the spring. Going forward, plant only native milkweed. For the Austin area, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center recommends the following:

Personally, I've had the most luck finding Asclepias asperula (antelope horns) at local nurseries. I've also ordered plants online from Monarch Watch.

Be patient with them. I've found them to be like bluebonnets - they don't want to be fussed over. I let them think they are a weed stealing a little moisture and growing in the soil between the pathway and raised vegetable beds. I remind myself that milkweed grows with abandon along MoPac and persists even with occasional mowing.

There are a lot of things in this world that we are powerless to change. This we can do.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Things in the garden I wished I'd never learned and the lies I tell myself

Our Texas heat has arrived so I got up early this Saturday to slog it out in the yard before the sun started beating down on me. We've had an unseasonably wet and cool spring this year, perfect for the weeds, and I needed to get the worst of them pulled before they set seed.

I've been particularly plagued by Torilis arvensis, known as spreading hedgeparsley. The Texas Invasives site has a description that just makes me laugh. "U.S. Habitat: 'This plant usually grows around waste areas, edges of woods, and low shady places' (Dixon 2011). 'The preference is full sun, mesic to dry conditions, and a rather heavy soil containing gravel or clay. Because this plant often grows in soil containing limestone gravel, it appears to tolerate alkaline conditions' (Hilty 2012)." Yep. That's my yard. I have battled it back pretty well in the front but the backyard got away from me. The nice rains and mild winter have stimulated it to epic proportions. The black swallowtail use it as a host plant, but I've yet to see a caterpillar on it. It likes to hide near my fruit trees and against the fence, which means that Penny the dog gets covered in burrs whenever she goes out on patrol. As I was yanking it out this morning I discovered a few new interesting things about my garden, and that made me think of all the other things I wished I'd never learned and the lies I tell myself about them. See if any of these ring true to you.
  1. Horseherb (and other weeds) are easier to pull when they are three feet tall. I guess it's all about the leverage. Plus the verdant growth means they grow up, instead of spreading horizontally, so there are less roots to pull. However, many develop tap roots that rival any tree and it's a recipe for three aspirin and a glass of wine later. Waiting to weed until they get bigger is just plain laziness on my part. 
  2. Wildflowers are not just flowers. Oh sure, they are pretty growing out in fields and along the highway. I get particular inspiration from my friend Jenny Stocker who blogs about her experiences at Rock Rose. Jenny's garden has been featured in magazines, tv shows, books, you name it. I go there and have to remind myself that the carefree way her plants grow masks a lot of hard work. I planted quite a few seeds in my gravel pathways to mimic what she does. They are stunning, but they reseed everywhere and I usually am tripping over them before I finally clear them away. Any plant out of place is a weed. I make all sorts of excuses for leaving them, but I must be ruthless and pull them out. Dandelions are pretty too (and delicious) but I don't seem to have trouble yanking them out.
  3. Bluebonnets are traitors. Lupines in general are some of my favorite plants because they are like the marines. It's their job to establish a beachhead on these alkaline soils so that other plants can land and thrive. Lupines are legumes, which means that they have bacteria on their roots (rhizobium) that fixes nitrogen from the air and makes it available to the plant. In my yard, the bluebonnets grow to about eight inches tall and then flop over to spread about a foot for each plant. That's awesome except that they harbor weed fugitives that I can't see until they outgrow the bluebonnet - often this is after they've already spread their weedy seeds everywhere.
  4. You'll never clear an area of weeds in order to put down mulch. The great thing about mulch is that it serves as a weed suppressant. For that reason, I try to clear the mulching area of weeds first before spreading the layer of whatever I'm going to use. The trouble is that I'm so exhausted from weeding that I never get around to the mulching part. I lie to myself and say that I'll do it next time. This goes along with other great lies like "I'll mow the grass when it quits raining."
  5. It's the journey, not the destination.  Plants on the edge of the garden will never get weeded. When I get overwhelmed with how overgrown things are, I play games with myself and try to prioritize the work. "I'll just work on the vegetable beds" I say to myself. Trouble is that I have to walk through a jungle to get there. This means that I weed on the way to weeding, then get tired and never even start the job I meant to. I guess this means I need staff. The other great lie I tell myself is "I'm just going out to turn the compost." Sure, but it always needs screening, which means I have compost to spread, which means I need a weed free area to add it to, which means see #4.
  6. Everything in Texas has spurs. Yee-howdy. Every single dang native plant and weed has some sort of spur, burr, thistle, or other device whose sole purpose is to extract blood meal for its community. And that doesn't even begin to include the biting insects and other varmints. 
  7. Elmer Fudd had the right idea. Yeah, that bugs bunny was a hilarious wise cracker but Elmer Fudd was totally justified in hunting down that wascally wabbit, not to mention his friends the squirrels. You know, I am a good person, I provide food for wildlife, I planted just the right shrubs and plants to contribute to the circle of life. However when those squirrels take one small bite out of a peach then throw it to the ground, or the rabbits just dig up carrots and leave them on the surface, or the mockingbirds fight each other and knock down the grapes, it just gets to be too much. This leads to the next thing I wish I never learned.
  8. Cages are for the people. The only relief from the wildlife is to cage your plants. Mere netting is not going to do the job. You need to build boxes for every edible plant, screen in your porches, and basically see the world through the fine haze of mesh. The Great Outdoors is over rated.
  9. Plants are not passive. For the inexperienced gardener, it seems that every plant is out there doing things on their own and just takes what comes. Not true. They're organized, they're manipulative, and they're arrogant. I've been spit on, stabbed, scratched, bitch slapped, and poisoned - all by plants I really like! Who needs enemies? The soil food web research and other microbiological studies show that plants communicate to each other and manipulate microbes, animals, and especially humans to work on their behalf. Don't believe me? When was the last time you ran outside to cover a plant from a freeze or gave it that special elixir to make it grow better. Sucker.
  10. Whatever pest or weed you brag about not having shows up the next growing season. It's gardening karma. I've learned to be much more sympathetic when people complain about a particular nuisance in their garden. You don't want to alienate these people because they may have the solution to the problem you are definitely going to have. It's the old "do unto others" thing.
What would you add to this list?

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Garden Glamour Thwarts Biting Flies

As usual, our Texas winter has been a mixed bag of weather. It's ranged from freezing temperatures to nearly 80 degrees. I'm not complaining. Texas winters are glorious compared to the gray cold skies of western Oregon, where I lived until 2009.

One dark side to the balmy weather is that the bug population doesn't get killed off in the cold and wet like they do in the north. It's a constant battle in the vegetable garden to stay ahead of pests no matter what time of year it is. I even had a lacewing fly into the house a few weeks ago. They like to hang out in the Mutablis rose near the deck and my recent pruning of it disrupted their housing.

According to my records, we've had a nearly average amount of rainfall this past fall and into January. The weed seed bank accumulated from not keeping up with appearances has sprouted with abandon. I've got plants coming up that I've never seen before and suspect they arrived in a torrent from some uphill neighbor. Weeds, weeds, everywhere so must haul my butt outside to try to catch up before hot weather arrives. I put on my shorts and tank top since I don't have to fear heat exhaustion, slather on sunscreen and am ready to do battle.

Except for the biting flies.

January and early February are usually mosquito free due to the temperature, but the biting flies are apparently more cold tolerant. Like fire ants, they pack a bite compared to their relative size. They are commonly called "Blackfly", scientific name Simulium meridionale. The female is the biter, and she uses her modified mouth parts to draw blood. They are super fast and I've been unable to swat and kill them. Once one of them draws blood a bunch more show up so it becomes really annoying. I've tried toughing it out but the bites creates a really itchy rash that no lotion will soothe. The only way to avoid them is to go in the house or wear protective clothing. I hate having to cover up because winter is the only time I can be outside without sweating like a horse and I'd like to enjoy the cool air. I guess I could get one of those insect protective suits, but they can be expensive.

This past week I had to give up in a huff and come in the house to put on long sleeves and pants. But then I had an idea. I've got a whole drawer full of pantyhose left over from when I used to work in offices whose dress codes required them. I'd order them online in bulk in the four colors I needed and kept well stocked since I was always snagging them on my desk. Once I didn't have to wear them I started using them as plant ties in the garden, so never threw them out. (They are also handy to dry garlic and onions. I hang them on the deck fully stuffed and they look like the worse case of cellulite EVER.) I pulled on a pair of navy hose, put my shorts back on, donned a long sleeve shirt and went back outside. For those of you in the know, panty hose fabric is not solid, and I've been bitten by mosquitos right through it, but I hoped that it would discourage the flies.

And it did! I was buzzed a couple of times but they didn't land and bite me, allowing me to stay out several more hours. Of course the bad thing is that I also developed several runs, which means I'm going to go through that drawer pretty fast to stay ahead of the flies.

Mission accomplished. Thankfully my backyard fence saved my neighbors from seeing me in my glamorous glory. Although if I fashioned some sort of tutu out of bird netting it could get very interesting...

Sunday, January 6, 2019

2018 Favorite Photos

I'm taking a moment to reflect back on the past year. I didn't do much traveling or gardening, as the scarcity of my photos testify. I've allowed things to get unbalanced, and looking through my photos reminds me that I need to slow down and appreciate the wonders.

These images make my heart warm. Yes, they are mostly plants, but hey, it's what I love to look at. I hope you'll indulge me.

McKee Bridge, Oregon.

Loblolly Pine, Pinus taeda, Peckerwood Gardens, Hempstead, Texas
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas, during a downpour.
Prickly pear, Austin, Texas
When ponds dream, McAshan Herb Gardens at Festival Hill, Texas
Chocolate Mimosa Tree at Tanglewood Garden, Texas
Mount St. Helens, Washington, with the still ash-choked Toutle River, hard to believe it's been 38 years since the eruption. Seems like yesterday.
Pacific Dogwood, Ashland, Oregon against that impossibly blue Oregon Sky
My Grandpa called this "strawberry grass" when I asked him what it was. It was only later that I realized he made up almost every plant name in order to appease his chattering granddaughters that would never shut up when following him around the forest.
Reflections from Lithia Park Reservoir, Ashland, Oregon
An infinity of alliums
Phacelia tanacetifolia, Purple tansy, Southern Oregon Experiment Station, Medford, Oregon
Applegate River, Oregon
Wild Rose, Applegate Reservoir, Oregon
Lichen covered limbs hanging over Applegate Reservoir, Oregon
Anigozanthos flavidus 'Yellow', Kangaroo Paw, Sacramento, California
Jess, my host at the California State Fair, whose badge is being inspected by a friendly porcine.

See? I can take pictures of people too. Hope you enjoyed them.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Home is where the plants are

I just returned from visiting my family in Oregon. It included a couple of quick visits to some old haunts in the valley and up the Siskiyous. May is the tail end of spring and it's heralded by roses, iris and rhododendrons.

My goal for this trip was to get out in the mountains and just breathe. I miss the perfume of the forest, the sponginess of the moss, the waft of whatever is flowering, the quick flash of fish jumping. The Rogue Valley where I grew up is nestled between the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains, with a mix of environs and plants. There was still snow on the peaks but the spring flooding was over so the water was completely clear.

I was home.

Or was I?

I couldn't help but think of the south marveling at the Antitrichia curtipendula moss growing on a Douglas fir that leaned over Applegate Lake. Even though it's a completely different plant than Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides.) Then my mind went down THAT rabbit hole making me think of the ball moss (Tillandsia recurvata) that grows on the Live Oaks here in Austin.

Down by the dam, (Applegate river has an earthen reservoir to form the lake) the white quartz and orange shale reminded me of the yellow limestone here in Hill Country.

Of course the water in this lake was blue, not the interesting brown that you find in Austin.

Back down in the valley, I dragged Mom down Hanley Road to see if the strawberries were ripe (they were) and to stop in at the Southern Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station and Jackson County Extension service. They are always doing interesting plant trials. I was totally captivated by their cover crop mix featuring blue tansy (Phacelia tanacetifolia), purple vetch, rye grass, and volunteer wheat. The staff invited me to pick a bouquet. So I did.
As a kid I would tromp through the pasture and pick grasses and weeds for bouquets. Alpine meadows were another special place where I just reveled in all the plants jammed into small areas. I guess that's why I love Texas and the prairie ecosystem, and those wildflowers! 

Unfortunately, I was between wildflower seasons during my visit. The woodland flowers like Trilliums were done, and the late spring flowers like Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii) and lilacs (Ceanothus) had a few more weeks to go. But luckily one of my favorites made an appearance by the trail.  Calochortus elegans, or "kitty ears" as we always called them, were delightful. You can't go by one of these without petting the long hairs along the petals.

But, I do the same thing with wine cup - a plant I couldn't grow to save my life in Oregon, but one that appears everywhere here in Central Texas.

I have to ask myself. Where is home? The mountains of Oregon with the perfume of respiring trees?

Or Texas?

Grasses or trees?

Kitty or doggy ears?

I don't know anymore. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Cheerfully incompetent

About 60 days ago I injured my back. I pulled up a tree and gave myself sciatic nerve issues. These past weeks have been agony, but I am lucky to have found a great chiropractic wellness center (which I fondly refer to as "the pain palace") and helpful advice from Jess and Val who have experienced the same thing. Walking the dog, using a standing desk at work, and lots of careful stretching have culminated into me getting back into the garden today.

What a mess it is. Weeds everywhere, compost stone cold, vegetables long past their pick date, roses that need deadheading, the list goes on.

But today my return outside was markedly different. I spent more time taking care of myself than taking care of the garden. I did my morning stretches, walked the dog, stretched again, then went outside. I limited my activity to two garden beds. I was out there for only a few hours and did some mildly strenuous work. Happy to report that I was able to bend and yank vines without issue. But then I cleaned and put away the tools, came into the house with the harvest, made myself a cup of tea and have called it good for the day.

I walked past the lima beans that desperately need to be picked. I walked past the green beans that are trying to outpace the weeds. I walked past the blooming dandelions and sow thistle. I walked past the crabgrass, horse herb, and johnson grass. I walked past the 10 bags of unopened mulch laying in the beds waiting to be spread. I walked past the okra and zinnias that are covered in powdery mildew. I walked past the garden beds that have rotted corner posts and are springing their sides. I walked past the boards that are cut and ready to use for bed repair.

Once I'd harvested the sweet potatoes and squash, I lightly raked the beds and threw on a cover crop of crimson clover. It's way too late to plant it. Worse, I just lightly patted it in and failed to give it the usual dusting of compost. I used five year old seed which has a small chance of germinating. I don't have a Plan B mulch prepared. I hear my own voice telling people during my master gardener speaking gigs never to do what I just did.

But I did it. Then I just walked away. Cheerfully incompetent.

This willingness to sacrifice myself for a bigger picture has always been a problem - and is something my employers are happy to exploit. I've got a huge compulsion to finish things, to work on large projects, to push myself to exhaustion. I don't spend time stretching, exercising, or just being quiet, all because I see some cog, some stray string, that needs to be repaired/built to keep the wheels of my life turning and the web of my existence intact.

And then my back said "uh uh girlfriend." My little voice reminded me that my friend Jennifer (who blogs at Rock Rose) has always cautioned us to warm up, do some core work, and otherwise take care of ourselves before running outside and doing something stupid.


So now I'm trying to do better. I'm trying to turn my focus from what needs to be done to what I must do to care for myself. And please, I'm not being a martyr, no one would ever describe me as a selfless humanitarian or care giver. "Hard worker" and "dependable" are two things that come up instead. I'll take that, but it's time to be a little less of those and more cheerfully incompetent - someone who is happy to turn away and not try to solve everything.

Someone without back issues.  Ha!

Thanks for listening and don't call me if you need rock hauled.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Brown is the New Green - the Quest for a Sustainable Lawn

Carex texensis - in spring
These hot August days have driven me inside for my summer dormancy where I weakly wave to my plants and wish them the best until October. I do suit up (hat, gloves, long sleeves) to mow my neighbor's lawn on occasion so that I can add the clippings to my compost.

Many people have strong opinions about lawns in relation to the chemicals and water resources used to keep it perfectly green. Not just lawns - driving home from work the sprinklers were mostly watering the road in an attempt to keep the median green.

My own front yard is approximately 625 square feet. If I watered it the recommended 1 inch per week, it would use about 1,677 gallons a month (1 inch of water = .62 gallons/square foot.)  That's a lot of water to keep alive something that you can't eat or put into a vase. It will also require fertilizer to keep it going, which then means I'll have to mow it. Water, fertilizer (even if it is organic), and gasoline. Suddenly the word "sustainable" isn't springing to mind.

What is sustainable anyway? There are a lot of definitions. Environmentally speaking, some say it is anything that endures over time without artificial, or man-made input. Watering from a hose is not considered a sustainable act, while rain falling from the sky is. If you have to supplement plant growth in any form, that, to some, is not considered sustainable. The lines blur when you enter in the whole organic movement. Some say that as long as you use organic inputs, like cow manure or compost, you are being sustainable because those sources are renewable resources. So, if I go ahead and have a lawn, get rid of the mower and use a goat to graze and fertilize it, I'm being sustainable. To me the argument becomes ridiculous because having a patch of green grass that requires all this maintenance makes it artificial - and therefore not sustainable - to me. Plus I'm not fond of goats (used to raise them, don't want to repeat the experience.)

Clearly, there must be room in the middle. There is something about the makeup of human beings that loves to see a sea of green. Maybe it is our pastoral past where we associated green fields with good hunting. In any case, telling people to give up their lawn is just not going to fly. What we can do, is help people make better choices. Instead of a thirsty lawn of St Augustine, consider reducing the size of the lawn and plant more ornamentals. Trees and shrubs don't require as much maintenance and are just as lovely. We also must change. It should be perfectly fine to plant Buffalo Grass and let it go brown and dormant in the summer - thus eliminating the need to water at all.

My own lawn is history. I killed all my St Augustine grass seven years ago and planted sedges (Carex texensis) in a much smaller footprint. I only water once a month if it hasn't rained and I don't mow it (although you can if you wish.)  I've spread wildflower seed so that in the spring and early summer I have my own meadow.   The peripheral ornamental beds are planted in natives and antique roses that don't need to be babied through the growing season. An added benefit is that many of the ornamentals provide food and habitat for our native birds most of the year.

It's my contribution toward being responsible to our growing population and shrinking resources. Water in Texas (and most elsewhere) is finite, and we all need to work together to make sure we conserve. Having a brown lawn should be a badge of pride - brown should be the new green!