Thursday, January 24, 2008

An Adventure in Suburban Central Texas Gardening

The Introduction

So it is what it is. It is hot here. Really hot. I get bloody well toasted and roasted most of the year in fact. As a recent transplant from the Great Northwest, I DESPISE the heat, LOVE the rain, and DIG the clouds...yet somehow I happily reside in a small cookie-cutter house in a semi-arid suburb of Austin,Texas where the trees look more like bushes on steroids and the deer are the size of large dogs (apparently not EVERYTHING is bigger in Texas). And I love to grow stuff. LOVE it. My ultimate nefarious plan is to turn my 1/8 of an acre postage stamp yard of bermuda grass into 1/8 of an acre of wildlife habitat and gardening goodness.

Now, as I very quickly discovered, gardening in Austin is a whole other animal than gardening in Seattle. It was so easy back home...good soil, 4 seasons, temperate climate. I didn't know what I had until it was gone. Here, the ground is caliche in one corner, black gumbo in the other, and landscaper's 'red death' special everywhere else. Where did my fabulous humous rich soil go? ....*kicking limestone rock to the wayside and heaving a great sigh*

As I ever so fondly recall, digging a hole in the earth was once an easy task to be completed with a simple shovel in a 5 minute interval. No more. When I first moved in (5 years past) and went to dig my first hole in the ground (solid rock?), my neighbor chuckled at my naivete, offered me the use of a crowbar and inquired if I had a good quality iron pick. I accepted the crowbar, threw the shovel to the wayside, and drove to the local Big Box store to purchase an iron pick. I am not so easily deterred.

Lost and Found

I had been mourning the fact that I could not have rhododendrons, giant flowering dogwoods, and azalias here. I missed my dutch irises, hyacinths, trilliums, tulips and fancy daffodils. I also missed moss. Yes, moss. I love that stuff. I had a whole section of garden devoted to moss and ferns and dicentra. That is so not happening down here. But, SOMETHING must grow here....I just needed to discover exactly what.

I became a bit obsessed. I poured over the net looking for any information about growing things in Central Texas. I visited the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Zilker Botanical Gardens. I watched Central Texas gardener and asked questions at local nurseries.

And I found that wonderful and beautiful things grow here! Oak, Orchid, and Persimmon trees, a virtual gamut of salvias and herbs, funky cacti and succulents, Wildflowers a-plenty, weird semi-tropicals, and many others. And oh!-citrus! OK, well citrus in a pot...but still citrus! I never could have that back home!

And so it began

A tiny Anacacho Orchid tree started my madness. I put it in that first hole I dug (hacked out?) with the borrowed crowbar and freshly-purchased, heavy-duty (which I promptly bent) iron pick. Feeling accomplished, I followed that with a pomegranate and some coral honeysuckle. Those plants thrived and so I added more. An Eve's Necklace for the north side of the house with silver ponyfoot beneath; Hinkleys columbine, violas, wild petunia, salvia greggi, and agave starts from the neighbor who encourages my sometimes futile gardening attempts.

At this point I decided that as much mono-culture, water sucking lawn as possible was soon to be replaced with native and adapted plants. Out went the lawn on the small west-side strip of my house and in went a desert willow, flame-leaf sumac, Golden Lead Ball Tree, rock roses, texas sage, lantana,and butterfly bush. And a granny smith apple tree because it reminds me of Washington State and the local native nursery guy swore to me it would grow well here (so far, so good!).

I looked about and noticed the trees the landscapers put in were yellow, chlorotic, and well, suffering. Japanese False Oaks don't much like hill-country soils (or lack there-of!) I took pity on them and gave them a quick death by hack-saw. In went a Texas Ash and a Live Oak. Next, out went 1/3 of the front lawn and in went all types of perenials - blackfoot daisy, coppercanyon daisy, various salvias, various skullcap, damianita, Mexican bird of paradise, yellow bells, gold lantana, mexican feather grass, and various cacti.

And so it continues....

I have really enjoyed the wildlife that all the new plantings have attracted - butterflies, birds, toads, anole lizards, and geckos. An added bonus is that all the critters are eating all the nasty bugs so I don't have to pour chemicals all over the place (I despise chemical lawns). I have far less fire ants (the toads love 'em!), Grasshoppers (birdie snacks), and Wolf spiders around (less ants, less spiders). And so five years later, I am still tearing up grass, and replacing it with all kinds of good things. It is my little wildlife garden and I love it. I still have much grass to dig out, back to work, back to work....better put on my wide-brimmed hat, 'cause the sun is killing me!


Pam/Digging said...

Wow, what a great introduction. It sounds as if you've made the best of Austin's hot climate and rocky soil with your terrific native plant selection. I look forward to seeing pics soon.

And thanks for linking to Digging. I'll do the same for you. Is your garden blog named for that gamer's T-shirt that MSS at Zanthan Gardens posted about some time ago? It was a black T-shirt with an angry sun and the caption, "The sun is trying to kill me." I laughed out loud when I saw that, and now I often say it to my husband during the brutal summers. It's too true!

By the way, will you be joining us for the Garden Bloggers Spring Fling? We Austin garden bloggers are always happy to meet a kindred spirit.

karen said...

I sympathize with the gardening culture shock of the south!

You'll find that most citrus will do fine in the ground. Perhaps they'll be killed by frost every 20 years of so (or maybe not with global warming!). I look forward to keeping up with your adventures.

Layanee said...

Welcome to the blogging community! I'm looking forward to your gardening adventures. I know I would feel much the same if transplanted to a hot climate but as you have found out and as I have learned from your fellow Texans, the possibilities, while different in TX, are endless! Nice post!

Lee17 said...


Ha! Yes! I saw that T-shirt last year, busted out laughing, and I thought to myself, 'that is EXACTLY how I feel!' I swear I am melting in the sun 9 months out of the year here.

I would like to join you guys for Spring Fling, I will have to check my schedule to see if I can attend. It sounds like it will be a blast. Thanks so much for the invitation!

Lee17 said...


Thank you for the warm welcome! Yes, please check in from time to time to find out what survived and what perished in my continuing gardening adventures.

Lee17 said...


Yes, I hear that the satsuma mandarin is fairly cold tolerant. maybe I should give that one a go.

January 28, 2008 8:20 PM

kate said...

I wanted to stop in and say welcome to the garden blogging world. You are fortunate to live in Austin and be part of the garden community there. I enjoyed reading this post - I'd say you've adjusted to your new environment well!

Lori said...

Hi! As a fellow transplant from the north, I completely understand the climate shock. When I gardened in northern Wisconsin, I had a shovel, a rake, and a hoe. Down here in Austin, the contents of my garden shed make it look like I'm stocking up for when the zombies come!

mss @ Zanthan Gardens said...

Welcome to Austin gardening and Austin garden blogging! I love the title of your blog--in fact, my husband once bought me a T-shirt that said the same thing because, you know, then I could complain about the sun without opening my mouth.

I look forward to reading more about your gardening adventures.

Annie in Austin said...

Tom Spencer has referred to trying to stay in the shadow of buildings while outside in summer as "hiding from the death star".

It will be fun to follow your garden adventures, Lee17m, and maybe you'll like to read about what the other Austin garden bloggers grow. My first Austin house featured deer and rocky slopes - this one on the NW edge of Austin has large old trees casting deep shade.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose