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Steam Rises


In my imagination, real gardeners are always busy.

They do a lot of weeding, hoeing, fertilizing, compost-making, staking, and I just don’t know what else. Pest control. One year my sister-in-law – a real gardener – lost all sixty of her tomato plants to the deer. Imagine. It’s one of the main reasons why I can’t don’t grow food: I simply refuse to compete with other creatures for what should obviously be mine. Life is aggravating enough without that.

It does appear, however, that a few deer strolled past our yard the other night and neatly chomped off all the rosebuds in the sidewalk garden. I would’ve bet they’d go for day lilies, because even people eat day lilies; but the fragrant little rosebuds must have been too yummy to pass up. Fortunately, I am not emotionally attached to my roses – I just have two “old-cemetery” varieties in the front yard and one mutabilis out back.

An image of my first trip out to California arises unbidden: it is 1983 and I am escorted to the west coast for the first time, to meet the woman who would become my best friend for life and also to allow me to spend some time with my parents, who had retired to San Diego. One afternoon we drove to Beverly Hills to meet up with a friend who worked there for the guy who played the brother-in-law in the “Rocky” movies. 

I had never seen such a place. It was March and although most of the landscape looked astoundingly lush, the deciduous trees were still bare, many of them cut back to their trunks. As we entered the neighborhoods of manicured lawns and big houses where no one seemed to live, I saw two men working high in the branches of some variety of tree I had never in my New England life encountered. They were working with saws, leaning back in the straps that held them high. They were laughing.

My life was rooted in the dour work ethic of New England. I didn’t know what to make of people who could work so hard under an intense late winter sun and laugh like that as they worked. 

No, I don’t work as hard as real gardeners, not by a long shot. Native lantana, like this one, proliferate abundantly and I have no plan to deter them. Why not let the plants do the work for me? Often when people walk by as I’m doing my yard puttering they’ll comment, That’s a lot of work! I try to summon some clever reply like, Well, it keeps me out of the bars most afternoons, but I usually can’t think of anything. In reality, most of the time I’m puttering in the yard to avoid work. Work is inside the house pouring over the sides of the hamper and laying a new coat of dust on every surface.

I always want plants that thrive on their own and propagate with abandon. Even the weeds are tempting: check out these thistle blossoms currently lining every roadway in town. They look like exploding purple firecrackers and obviously do very well with zero human intervention applied. If there has been any effort, it has probably been in the direction of eliminating them. That’s my idea of a great wildflower.

This noon was one of those times when teetering piles of late paperwork languished on more than three surfaces of the house while I walked up and down the sidewalk doing nothing more than checking on what had transpired while I’d been at school. It had rained a little, which was nice; under half an inch was enough to replenish the rain barrels to overfull status and send extra water running out to the trees. 

I wasn’t even minding the palpable crank-up of humidity even though it puts an immediate unruly curl in my hair and sends sweat dripping down my nose in a way which I imagine must be quite attractive. In Texas in June, rain is quickly followed by sun; for a little while at least, it’s easy to believe you are living in a rain forest. You can kind of hear fungi dancing for joy in the background, ready to launch their takeover.

The weather inspired me to make my first popsicles of the season; banana bread and coffee cake time is over. It’s the time of year when a stove in the garage would make sense alongside the refrigerator many families have out there. I used vanilla nonfat yogurt and a mix of smushed strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. Followed a recipe but wasn’t thrilled with the result: they were too tart to qualify as a treat in my book, and I’m not sure that nonfat yogurt can set up into the kind of creaminess I’m looking for. The popsicles were like tart fruity vanilla ice.

Obviously more practice is called for. Last year I made a batch with smashed bananas and ribbons of hot fudge: now, that’s a popsicle.

By now most of my hard garden work is done for the season. I’ll trim and cut back, try to redirect the purple lantana over the curb to drape, offer unceremonious funerals to plants that fail or die of thirst. Mornings, early, Travis and I give water to the newest citizens of the yard. That’s just about it.

I will say I do engage in some pest control: at this time of year I set a goal of 20 squished leaf-hoppers per day from the Texas hibiscus out front. I hate to admit to the fact that I enjoy squashing half-inch-long insects between my fingers, but they infuriate me and I would have no hibiscus if they had their way. How am I ever going to explain this ritual to the people who will one day buy our house?

It’s one of the best parts of a southern summer: the higher the temperature, the less we are required to do, hurry, accomplish, or organize. Deadlines melt. In Austin, a city always ready to leave work early, playing outside becomes many peoples’ #1 goal; and since it is generally preferable to play outside in the early morning or evening hours, we are all likely to arrive at work a little tired or spend a fair amount of the workday planning our after-work activity. In other words, play takes all priority over work, no question.

As far as gardening goes, it is now officially too late to really plant anything unless you are one of those wealthy Austinians who’ve decided to dig a well straight down into the aquifer so you won’t have to bother with pesky government regulations like watering restrictions aimed at preserving some sort of water supply for the region, in which case you are a terrible person and we’re not going to spend any time thinking about you except to thank you very much for stealing a precious limited resource from the rest of us just because you could. Yeah, so thanks. (Gracious, that was quite a rant for this time of year! If I don’t calm down I won’t make it through the really hot weather.)

So the hard gardening is over. Time to just keep a vigil and see what unfolds. If the past is any predictor of the future, by mid-summer I’ll be so bored I’ll invent an absurd project to keep myself amused (Cf. last year’s post, “A Math Problem”). For now all I have to do is walk around and see what’s happening. The plants are doing all the work. The plants and the insects.

Came upon a newly launched cicada in my Texas sage and did my best to photograph it while trying to stave off lingering raindrops and the inevitable breeze that starts up every time I’m trying to get close. This first photo is the shell this one emerge from after crawling out of the dirt and finding a usable anchor. I’ve only once caught one in the act of rising up out of that split-open back like a science fiction version of an insect. We’ll find these shells all over the place once summer is in full swing. They are a pale tan color and as brittle as burnt sugar, running about an inch and a half in length and just about as big around. Texas is no place for the faint of heart.

I don’t mean to be judgmental, but cicadas are, well, bizarre looking. Once they emerge they spend the day drying out and manage to become a fair amount larger than the shell they emerged from earlier. They have beautiful big lacy wings, and are iridescent, which is pretty; but oh, that face. And those eyes, set on either side of the front of their big fat bug body. Their faces make them look like the frogs of the insect world. This guy is upside-down, just as you would find him if you were walking along your sidewalk checking out what was happening in the garden. (I don’t think right side up improves his appearance any, but go ahead and try.)

The greatest charm of cicadas is that they will not appear in your house (tree roaches, are you listening?) to frighten you out of your wits in the middle of the night. Their second-greatest charm is that scree-scree-scree-scree noise they will make in treetops all summer in an apparent effort to demonstrate their attractiveness to one another. Funny how a sound that in and of itself is ridiculous and annoying becomes charming to me when it means summer

I did transplant a couple of plants the other day, so I guess that counts as gardening. What happened was, I had picked up some gourds at Central Market last fall to use as decoration for Floyd’s 60th birthday party. When they reached that point in life at which they were about to collapse in puddles, I took one and tossed it into the sidewalk garden. Lo and behold, three seeds sprouted. 

I’ve never grown gourds, but it occurred to me they might like a trellis of some kind. If you don’t trellis them they become flat on one side, which is the way to go if you don’t want them to roll around. When I ran a search it became evident that trellised gourds need real true support, not just a decorative wiry thing; so I decided to move them to the herb cage in the back yard, figuring they would climb up the chicken-wire and maybe even provide shade for the parsley.

Not being a very good gardener I just scooped them up with a trowel and plopped them into their new apartment. They looked pretty poorly that first day, of course, but the day after that they were showing definite signs of survival. Note to self: plant gourds. I’m very enamored of the kind that make little birdhouses. Sometimes I can understand gardeners keeping those gardening journals as a way to keep track of problems, successes, and daydreams. 

If I have anything in common with the people I believe to be real gardeners, it’s an excitement about trying something new. Since Murphy’s Law runs gardening with an iron fist, it almost always happens that when you fall in love with something and bring a dozen of them home to plant, they flop spectacularly. All of them. Every one.

Conversely, when you wrestle yourself into being sensible at the nursery and say to your sensible self, I’ll just try one of these, it will inevitably turn out to be a beautiful plant that makes you wish you had a dozen of them. I recently planted something by the side of the house that is so pretty I do wish I had a dozen of them, but I think it will get too big for that. It’s my new “Fragrant mimosa” (Mimosa borealis), and if it actually produces flowers like the ones I just saw on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website (, I will be a very happy unruly gardener indeed.

Not only pretty, it embodies the greatest paradox in the garden: beautiful feathery leaves that pulse in the breeze and cast the loveliest tropical shadows, combined with the most obnoxious array of thorns I have ever encountered. They would make a fabulous living fence because no one would want to face those thorns, and even if someone did try to hack their way through, the plant would snag every square millimeter of the interloper and hold them there until police arrived. It should be called Top Drawer Security Plant.

Even as I write this I’m suspecting in the way back of my mind that sooner or later those thorns are going to annoy me mightily; but for the moment I shall enjoy the honeymoon and the sheer anticipation of its flowers.

All over the neighborhood the first flowers of spring are giving way to the next assortment. Empty fields have been mown, which means a smaller population of wildflowers but safer walking and better water flow into the drainage areas. Crape myrtles are popping into bloom – varieties bloom on different timetables. Everybody’s Esperanza but mine is covered with yellow bells. Tiny buds have formed on my Pride of Barbados, which makes me happy; I felt like I waited all summer last year for them.

Late this afternoon it’s one hundred degrees on the woefully unshaded patio. Travis and I step out the door now and then to check plant progress and look for photo ops. I make him lie down in the shade. In just a few minutes we’ll retreat to the living room to sprawl on the couch under the ceiling fan. We’re lazy and there isn’t much we need to do.

It’s a comforting kind of sameness.

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