It’s Been A Blast

One of the few written accounts of the events around Vesuvius that laid waste to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and surrounding towns nearly two thousand years ago was written by Pliny the Younger, nephew to the great scientist-author-naturalist-statesman-admiral. (Pliny the Elder was evidently a very busy man.) While his uncle rounded up the fleet and sailed straight toward the catastrophe, Pliny the Younger stayed behind and documented it. Apparently his descriptions were so accurate (rather than speculating about what the gods might be trying to say, as I probably would have done, he wrote down exactly what he was observing) that a certain type of volcanic eruption was named for him.

I wanted to compare current garden events to a Plinean eruption, but it seemed disrespectful to anyone in history who’s ever experienced one: ash and gases shooting up to the stratosphere (!), spreading across the sky in the shape of a Stone Pine tree, then collapsing to create a deluge of pyroclastic flow. Everything and everyone in its path ends up incinerated and encased in rock.

It would have been kind of a stretch anyway, when all I’m trying to describe is an explosion of flowers and what I’ll face in next month’s clean-up.

All week I’ve been unable to stay in the house for more than a few minutes at a time. No matter what I’m supposed to be getting done, blue skies and sheer abundance pull me outside over and over. All I do is walk around the yard looking, noticing, being surprised. I get up at six a.m. and dither about until I have to rush out the door in time to make a noon appointment. This is one of the great things about gardening: I have no idea where time goes.

Looking around the yard now, I can’t help but think about the early days of the sidewalk garden, after the tilling was done, the composting, the fun of planting. Up until then, all I’d ever done was dig holes in your typical Austin two inches of topsoil followed by six miles of rock. Being able to slip trowel or shovel into thoroughly prepared beds and just pop plants into the ground was sheer pleasure. I felt like a TV gardener.

However, I’d never faced a hundred-foot stretch of perfectly prepared growing medium, and it was pretty intimidating at first. Five long beds that were my first extensive experience with full sun. What would I plant?

My method was as follows: first and most obviously, I would select only native and well-adapted plants. Unlike the well-meaning but ill-advised people who’d owned the home before me, I wouldn’t choose azaleas, for example. This isn’t Dallas and we don’t have acid soil. This is Austin, where the soil is alkaline and “acid” means something other than pH.

After a suitable amount of time daydreaming with my Texas garden books, it was off to the Natural Gardener ( I started with the plants that would get big (although I never believe anything I plant will ever really thrive) – a pomegranate, the Mexican Bird of Paradise, Spirea, Texas sage, a few shrubby lantana. Then I went for scatterings of color: purple, red, yellow, pink, white. Each bed would get a random assortment of colors.

I knew I wanted lantana that would pour down over the curb, so every bed got some of them. I chose purple as you see, but I can tell you that the neighborhood is currently graced with waterfalls of lantana in every imaginable color. Thinking about it now, I might have chosen a stunning gold, or maybe even an assortment for a truly unruly effect. They were little four-inch-pot dudes when they went in the ground!

I wanted a scattered look, not an English garden. An autumn sage here, a purple salvia there, one of these, a couple of those.

Since the garden went in, only a few plants have failed to survive. Most of the deaths resulted from radical cutbacks to their water supply. For example, I had planted lavender in a moment of weakness, knowing it would want more water than I was ever going to give it. Last year I decided that I would only be putting in cactus, agave, yucca, and anything that grows out in the greenbelt. This year, as you no doubt recall, I planted lots of rocks.

Autumn is the time of year when we in Zone 8 plant our perennials, giving them time to savor what rain we’ll have and to put down good roots before they have to put their energy into new leaves and flowers. It’s a great time to fill gaps and try out a specimen you haven’t experimented with yet. But yesterday I had to face reality: the sidewalk garden is full.

This is what three growing seasons can do:

I don’t know what my neighbors must think when they look out their windows and see me walking up and down, up and down all day. I try to look pensive, as if I’m contemplating some great idea or working out a complicated writing problem, but really I’m just taking it all in. I see it all, multiple times a day; and I still find it hard to believe.

The approach along the sidewalk looks like a tunnel of greenery to me:

Looking closer, color after color after color:

There you have it: a blast of fall colors from Zone 8. Wish you could be here to see it. Wish you could stick around for the cleanup…

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