It’s Nearly Autumn


It’s a midweek morning in early November, seventy degrees and airlessly humid, and we are awaiting rain.

The post-summer banquet has held up;DSC_0015 we’ve had a couple of nights in the 40’s but no freeze yet. Just about every thing that can make a flower has been in full production mode.

Here and there some of the trees are starting to turn – the implication of bronze if not the reality.

We are all excited at the prospect of rain that may actually accumulate, but in the back of many peoples’ minds is the reality that at least one person near here won’t survive the storm. No matter how many PSA’s go out about low water crossings and “Turn Around, Don’t Drown!” someone will attempt to drive through the water without thinking how easily a few inches of rushing water can pick up a vehicle and send it plummeting into an inescapable deluge.

In our last big storm a local law enforcement officer was swept to her death as she was checking a low-water warning gate. I didn’t know the officer personally, but I do know a family toward whom she had recently gone above and beyond to help, so the tragedy hit me harder than such events generally do. I don’t like to be so desensitized, so perhaps Travis County Deputy Jessica Hollis’s death will help me remember that anyone lost to a storm is an important person who has been valuable to someone on this earth. I can always stand an infusion of goodwill.

Anyway, that was all by way of saying that when we await a big rain down here we seem to bring a certain thoughtfulness to it. We’ll all be glad to see a good rain, but the dangers are never completely removed from awareness. Maybe that’s an age thing – you’d have to be a pretty pessimistic young person to be pondering risks and dangers at the mere prospect of a few inches of rain!

On a lighter note and quite uncharacteristically, I have assembled the little greenhouse well ahead of time (Cf. “Lucy and Ethel Erect A Greenhouse,” November 2013). The honeybee in the Esperanza photo above reminded me that one had flown into the greenhouse as soon as it was upright, quickly finding it too hot in there to think much or even work very hard to find a way out.

Without thinking, I held out a finger and he climbed aboard. I stuck my hand out the window and hoped he was in a beneficent mood. In a few seconds he shook his head as if coming to his senses, and flew off. I just love bees.

Our local organic hardware and drinkable-paint emporium has a new display with an array of beekeeeping items. Floyd and I would love to have a hive, but I’m not sure we have a large enough yard. Bees would be completely undisturbed in the back corner of the fence behind the young maple, I think, but whether that would give them enough of a safe radius as we come and go in the yard is questionable. I’ll have to do some homework. We have a certain amount of beekeeping equipment from Floyd’s parents’ place back in Appleby. No extractor, of course, but I’m sure there are beekeepers around who will let you use theirs for a fee. At least, there should be.

If I were asked to put money on the question, I would bet there will be a little hive back there next spring. A beehive is the kind of thing that insinuates itself in my mind and refuses to let go until I do something about it – kind of like John Thorne with a recipe. (If you like food writing and don’t know the work of John Thorne, hurry and find some – he is among the best of the best food writers out there.)

It was a very productive weekend in the yard, but more about that later.

The Esperanza pictured above with its DSC_0002apian guest isn’t the only yellow bloomer in the side yard; Cassia bicapsularis is behaving as advertised: clusters of bright yellow flowers opening just as the cool weather approaches. I’m not convinced these first experimental specimens get all the sun they would prefer, but it is supposed to be a very enthusiastic self-seeder, so maybe I’ll try a couple in genuinely all-day sun next year.

Meanwhile, these look very attractive standing alongside a holly laden with red berries. Quite the autumn color statement.

I was glad to see the desert mallow bloomingDSC_0019 again, those vivid orange flowers nestled in silvery foliage. As you can see in the upper right, the purple lantana has provided us with yet another spray of color too, spilling over the curb and making me gasp helplessly when people feel the need to park their cars on it despite ten thousand linear miles of barren curb all around us. I just don’t know what people are thinking most of the time. Why don’t they park in front of the house they are visiting? Why park on my lantana? Sigh.

This year I brought three shrimp plants toDSC_0014 the side yard; two are in the ground and growing slowly, the third is in a profoundly heavy concrete planter with naked cherubs all around its base. They are on the west side of the house in dappled afternoon light. A recent rain filled the concrete planter to the point that it looked like a pagan baptismal font; I worried about root rot. Tilting that two-ton planter to one side so some of the water can drain off is a truly risky enterprise for me. But shrimp plants must be quite tolerant of unruly gardeners, because we have a feathery round of blossoms now.

The word on the rain barrels, now that I’ve mentioned rain, is that they have been amazing. We used almost no hose water this year, so for once the bar graphs on my utility bill have been making me squeal with delight rather than horror. It takes a little more time and effort to water this way, obviously, but so worth it. And the metal roof means that even a misty morning is sufficient to send sky water drip-drip-dripping into the barrels.

My only regret is going with four 55-gallon drums in the back yard (two on either side of the house) and not having invested in a huge cistern-type barrel from the get-go. Although our back yard is seriously tiny, I think it would have been worth it. So if you are thinking of rain barrels, I suggest you go big. Be brave. What the heck.

Last month as Halloween approached and I kept thinking of small children tripping along the sidewalks in their costumes, I indulged in a second round of agave-tip-protector making. This time I left the clay shapes drying in the garage for over a week, then painted them with oil-based enamel. Let that dry for several days, then decorated. Here are a few examples of the second generation:

I just think these are the funnest things DSC_0031 (2)in the world.

I imagine I’ll tire of their artificiality at some point, but I spend plenty of time either worrying about someone becoming impaled or sticking my own hands into those spikes while I’m weeding. It is a matter of sheer luck that I haven’t put one through an eye yet. So they do have some practical value.

We’re not just about whimsy around here, I’ll have you know. And just to prove we have all the gravitas you could possibly be looking for, let me just say that last weekend Floyd and I planted our first real tree. How can we have waited so long?

Travis and I hadn’t gone out to the Natural Gardener last week looking for trees; we’d gone in search of new plants for the herb garden. I’d been traumatized when my bronze fennel had about ten (10!) ((TEN!!)) swallowtail caterpillars and not enough foliage to sustain them. I tried feeding them organic parsley, but no go. All were lost. See where a stubborn adherence to a diet will get you?

Before we even went to the herb section we had to get ourselves over behind the goat enclosure, out by the donkeys where Travis loves to poop, and on our way I noticed that trees were on sale. Well, hurry up and get your business done, pupdog, because we need to go look at trees!

I picked the most beautiful Monterrey Oak in the place, a 30-gallon specimen. Paid immediately and had them tag it lest someone else run off with our gorgeous new tree. I was in the Prius and would have to come back next day with the pickup. Hard to wait, but what can you do? Even I knew I wouldn’t be able to get that tree off the back of the truck myself.

Collected an assortment of fennels, dills, and parsleys and headed home, almost too excited about the tree to sleep that night. Woke up several times worrying about whether our little back yard would have enough room for a great big canopy. Would prospective buyers hate the loss of sunlight?

Decided none of that would be my problem. Let the kids worry about selling the house when the time comes. Let the new buyers either sign a contact to do not harm to the tree or be stupid enough to take it down – it would no longer matter to me.

It’s kind of an optimistic adventure, to plantDSC_0057 a major tree in your sixties. You can’t help but think about all the things on this earth that ought to and will outlive you. I believe this little oak will have a chance to grow quite a bit while we’re still here; looking back at photos of the yard from when we first moved in 4.5 years ago, I’m amazed by how much the trees have grown.

It occurred to me on Saturday morning that I should have had Floyd bring the duct jack home from the shop. (A duct jack is like a combination dolly and mini-forklift, with a crank you turn to move the fork up and down. We used it to add large rocks to the sidewalk garden last year.)

But I hadn’t, so we had to drop the tree onto our regular dolly and maneuver it into the back yard leaning way back in order to clear all the stuff that already occupies our little corner of heaven. Howard Garrett says you start with “an ugly hole” roughly twice the diameter of the tree’s container and sloped on the sides like a giant saucer. I say when you are dealing with six inches of soil and ten miles of rock, your hole is going to be ugly no matter what you do. And your back won’t be so pretty, either.

Nevertheless, we dug the hole and coaxed the tree out of its container and got it into the hole and checked for depth and plumb, and…


…now all I need do is sit patiently on the sun-drenched patio and wait for shade. As the saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is today.”

It’s just about autumn. Go plant a tree.


Leave a Reply