Sunday, April 25, 2010

Austin Texas, One Year Later


It's been a year since we moved here, which is very hard for me to believe. So many things have changed that sometimes I lose my breath. Some things have turned out better than expected, others not so much, and I am an awfully long way from my friends and family, but all in all I am very glad to be living in Austin, Texas.

One of the things that has been an absolute hoot is starting fresh in a new yard. This house was a virtual blank canvas and I have enjoyed turning into something that shouts "Sheryl lives here!" Some of my neighbors may disagree - after all, I had the best lawn on the street prior to my flirtation with Roundup. However, I remain very satisfied with how it is shaping up.

The Texas sedge I planted is flowering and setting seed. Hopefully that means that this fall it will fill in quite a bit when the rains return. My shrubs are blooming and setting berries. The wildflowers are growing and starting to bloom. The red Yuccas I transplanted from the back are throwing out flower spears and will be awesome in a few days.
The vegetable garden is the best I have ever planted. The raised beds Ed made out of scrounged fence boards are just the right size and the hoops enable me to put on row cover whenever needed. It was an idea I was developing for the Alaska project and I'm glad to be able to put it to use here in Austin. I've been concentrating on the garden's foundation plants and haven't been able to put in my usual riot of flowers, but my Mutabilis roses are doing what they can to make up for it. They don't need a lot of water and are very easy keepers. I have five of them planted around and all of them are cheerfully blooming.

The bird baths, mulch, and large trees in front also attract quite a few birds. I've never lived in a place with so much bird song - and that includes growing up on Yank Gulch. The cardinals, doves, wrens, chickadees, starlings, grackles, and a bunch of other tweety birds I haven't identified are constantly singing. I think my favorite has to be the Mockingbirds though. I have never seen more enthusiastic singers. They have really long phrases and are incredibly loud for their size. They also have funny personalities and are fun to watch. They seem to have it in for the squirrels. It's not unusual to see them chasing a rodent down the street or along a fence line. I've even seen two of them faced off in a duel - the bird won of course.

There are other awesome birds like hawks and egrets that hang about. We get migrations of Purple Martins and Monarch butterflies this time of year. We also have these huge turtles - about dinner plate size or larger, that you can see in ponds and sloughs around town. Soon the cicadas and fireflies will be active with their own shows. There is a lot to be thankful for and to appreciate.

So I'm glad that fate (and Kent - even though he ran off and returned to Oregon) brought us here. I think leaving the Northwest has been good for me all and all. Everyone needs a little adventure and risk once in a while to put things in perspective and starting out fresh has been both fun and terrifying. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going out on the deck to enjoy the evening. Ed has my chair waiting.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Psst, little catapiller, do you want some candy?

Hello, my name is Sheryl, and I have lured a butterfly into my garden. Not only that, but I encouraged eggs to be deposited for the sole purpose of entrapping a young, innocent butterfly child in my back yard. I am unrepentant.

I am thrilled to report that the dozen fennel plants I put in the ground last fall are doing their job. I was hoping that a swallowtail butterfly would lay some eggs on them so I could hatch butterflies in the yard. It worked! I've been inspecting my plants since it warmed up a few weeks ago and discovered the tiniest little creature last weekend. He was barely as long as your fingernail and just a sliver of a little thing. Today he has ballooned into a two-inch behemoth who is munching down on one of my bronze fennel plants. I am hoping that he continues to grow and doesn't end up as lunch.

I've got eggs on other stems, but I think they are too bright yellow to be Swallowtails. I suspect these are from the Gulf Fritillary butterflies that I've also seen hanging around. I really don't care, I'm just honored that my fennel was chosen as a nursery.

I've also scattered dill seeds and have some tropical milkweed starts growing on the patio. I am hoping to lure some Monarchs with these. And then of course there are the citrus trees. There is a particular Swallowtail that loves to eat those leaves and now that I know what they look like I won't pick them off like I did last summer.

I also found a snake today while I was hilling the potatoes. I am not sure what kind it is, but I think it is a Rough Earth Snake, Virginia striatula. It was a tiny little thing and at first I just though it was an earthworm - but he wasn't moving. When I picked it up for a closer look it stopped playing dead and wriggled out of my hand. Lucky for me I'm not afraid of snakes. This particular kind of snake eats slugs, snails and earthworms. It likes to live in leaf litter - which is where I found it, so I've got plenty of habitat!



From a sterile patch of lawn has emerged a neighborhood hangout. To see that all my hard work has not gone unnoticed by the local wildlife is immensely satisfying. Now if I can just figure out what will eat the cockroaches that invade my compost I will be set. Maybe the fire ants will keep them out. Hmm, fire ants as a garden helper? Who knew?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Resurrection of the Citrus Trees

Slowly, slowly, the citrus trees are coming back to life.

My Kaffir lime, the Mexican Key Lime, and the Variegated Eureka Lemon have all put out new leaves. The other lime still has a tiny green area on it's stem and is putting out a leaf. It's near the graft though so I'm not sure if it is the tree I want to be growing.

The banana and Bird of Paradise did not make it, so I've put sunflowers in their pots. I planted Mammoth, Velvet Queen, and Teddy Bear - all sure to cheer me up. The pineapples also died but I've sprouted two new crowns as replacements.

I learned a good lesson here. Just because I am hot and sweaty ten months of the year, doesn't mean that a cold wind from the Pacific Northwest can't come find me. What is frustrating is that I knew better. Those trees weren't cheap and I should have taken better care of them. Instead, I thought I could get away with just having them in the patio enclosure and not having to do anything else. Guess not. I will be prepared next time. I've already figured out how I can rig a cold frame and keep them all under plastic. It won't be the most attractive thing, but I can't afford a retractable awning or other fancy doo-dad.

I am also happy to report that my in-the-ground trees are doing well. The two oranges and Satsuma Mandarin are all blooming and setting fruit. My Meyer Lemon and kumquat are growing their leaves back and should be blossoming soon too.

I am thrilled with my mini citrus orchard. The flowers have the sweetest scent and the leaves are pungent with that citrus tang. They are so much more fun than my other fruit trees. Now if I could just keep the fire ants out of my compost bin - life would be perfect!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

You know, I think things ARE bigger in Texas

I've lived in Austin for a year now and there are still a few things that make me pause. Well, not the cockroaches, they make me run for a swatter.

It's mostly the climate; it's just so warm here compared to the Northwest. In the garden I am perpetually lagging the recommended planting dates. (It's just so WRONG to plant squash and sweet corn in March.) If it weren't for my handy chart from the Master Gardeners, I'd never get anything in the ground on time. Here the price to pay for being late is that you don't get a harvest before the summer sun fries everything to dust. I had it easy in the Northwest where the grace periods were much longer.

I'm not complaining. This place is literally exploding with growth right now. Overnight the wildflowers carpet the roadsides with a complete riot of colors. The redbuds erupt into the most exquisite pink clouds only to be rivaled by the white of the Mexican Plums. Butterflies and birds are everywhere. It really is a celebration to spring. Almost makes me want to turn pagan and run naked through the neighborhood.

The vegetable garden is also just amazing. My garlic, onions, Swiss chard, kale, second crop of radishes, beets, spinach - everything has just taken off. I planted the same variety of Oregon Giant Snow Peas that I do every year, and here they really are gigantic.
In Oregon, I was very lucky to have them reach their mature height as stated on the seed packet before they dried up and I had to pull them. Here they are three feet tall and are just now starting to bloom. It's not the soil or any sort of different cultural practice, it's totally due to the warmer nights. I have cabbage planted in the same bed, and I don't know if I am going to be able to get the row cover over my hoops to keep out cabbage moths. Maybe the huge peas will fool them and they will fly off to plague someone else.

And then there is the fruit. How can it be possible that I have bud break on my apple trees and cantaloupe sprouting at the same time? My citrus trees have recovered from the freeze and are blooming now too. I just noticed that one of the oranges has actually set a little tiny orb. Huh? It's like I'm a symphony conductor - all the instruments are playing at once and it's up to me to bring out the music.

My garden and this climate have also changed the way Ed and I eat. We continue to lose weight as we stuff ourselves with vegetables and grilled meats. Our fat and wheat consumption has really plummeted, plus we get out and walk more. We discovered that I now fit into Ed's old jeans and shorts, so I have a much wider selection of gardening clothes than before! Plus, did you know that men's pants have much deeper pockets? We women get short-changed on everything.

Of course, today it is raining and 80 degrees. I went outside and had to gasp for air because it is so steamy. But the plants are happy and therefore, so am I!